Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday became the highest-ranking British politician to appear before a media ethics inquiry triggered by a phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
Cameron flatly denied suggestions that there was a plot or "nods or winks" between his Conservative Party and News International, the British arm of News Corp.
"Of course I wanted to win over newspapers," Cameron said Thursday, referring to his media strategy in his successful 2010 election campaign. "I worked very hard at that because I wanted to communicate what the Conservative Party and my leadership could bring to the country.
"But I didn't do it on the basis of saying that either overtly or covertly your support will mean that I will give you a better time on this policy or that policy," he said.
Since the inquiry began hearing testimony in November, an impression has emerged of senior politicians attempting to curry favor with the Murdoch empire, which was perceived to have sway over national elections.
For his part, Cameron has faced criticism over his government's handling of News Corp.'s attempt to take over British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), a lucrative satellite television company. The opposition Labor Party has argued that the Conservatives helped smooth the way for the bid in exchange for favorable coverage in Murdoch newspapers.
Much is at stake for Cameron, 45, whose party has been battered by a string of perceived mishaps and trails by about 10 points in national polls.
"There's a sense of privileged entitlement which is coming out more and more strongly and doesn't do the government any good," said Rodney Barker, professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics. "Cameron's image as a dreamy but basically nice guy is definitely getting rubbed, worn and tarnished."
At times during the testimony, Cameron appeared uncomfortable, offering terse answers and often saying he could not recall particular meetings.
The media ethics probe was set up by a reluctant Cameron last summer at the peak of the phone-hacking scandal that enveloped News of the World, a 168-year-old tabloid. Murdoch has closed the newspaper.
On Thursday, Robert Jay, the lead lawyer for the inquiry, painted a picture of a cozy relationship between Cameron and Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, and her husband Charlie, a horse trainer.
Illustrating their closeness, Jay revealed a text message that Rebekah Brooks sent to Cameron on Oct. 7, 2009, the day before he addressed the Conservative Party conference. She ended the text message saying: "I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a personal friend but because professionally we're definitely in this together. Speech of your life? Yes Cam!"
Brooks and her husband were granted bail Wednesday after appearing in a central London court. They face charges of perverting the course of justice in one of the many police investigations related to the phone hacking.