By Mohammed Abbas
LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch called it the most humble day of his life, and he can rarely have looked as ill at ease as he did during Tuesday's parliamentary hearing into the phone hacking scandal that has shaken his media empire.
The 80-year-old press baron spent much of the three-hour hearing with his head bowed, at times staring at the back of his hands on the desk before him, and rarely showed the passion and aggression on which he built his business over six decades.
He answered many questions in monosyllables and frequently left long pauses before uttering short replies, apologizing repeatedly for the hacking by his now defunct News of the World newspaper but shedding little light on what went on.
"This is the most humble day of my life," he said early on, interrupting his son James Murdoch, his 38-year-old heir apparent and chairman of News Corporation's non-U.S. properties.
Looking tired, sometimes annoyed and at others bemused, he displayed little emotion during the session, although he occasionally slapped the desk where he sat taking questions from parliament's media committee.
Even when a protester in the room threw a plate of white foam at Murdoch, he remained calm, if a little shaken. He agreed to complete the session after a short break, this time with his jacket off.
On one of the few occasions he broke into a smile, he was told by the committee that this was no laughing matter.
Other rare moments of emotion came when he described how his father had left him a newspaper in the hope that he would do good, when he spoke of the succession at his business and when he criticized the reporting practices of a rival, the Daily Telegraph, wagging his finger.
Murdoch's answers portrayed him as a man who had infrequent contact with the editors of the newspapers in his News Corporation empire, knew little of their daily business and did not get involved in editorial decisions.
"Nobody kept me in the dark, I may have been too lax about asking," he said.
He denied any knowledge of phone hacking or other illegal activities, said he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed" at the alleged hacking of the phone of a murdered schoolgirl and said he had been let down by those around him.
Asked why he had not resigned, he said: "Frankly I'm the best person to clean this up."
Family loyalty was in evidence when his wife Wendi, who sat just behind her husband throughout the hearing, jumped up quickly to fend off the protester who attacked Murdoch.
When Murdoch stumbled over answers, his son frequently tried to step in, only to be told he must let his father answer the question.
At one point James Murdoch chided his father for gesticulating too much, which apparently went against the instructions of advisers.
In contrast to his father, James' answers seemed more confident, if at times rehearsed, as he denied any knowledge of phone hacking or corruption at the time crimes allegedly happened.
He spoke fluently and articulately but few of his answers are likely to have satisfied the committee. More than once he replied with the phrase: "I have no knowledge of that."
The younger Murdoch tried charm, frequently complimenting the committee members on their questions, and did not raise his voice. But neither could avoid looking evasive and, at times clueless about what went on in their company.
Rebekah Brooks, the News of the World editor at the time some of the alleged hacking occurred, later appeared separately at the hearing and was polite, respectful and thoughtful as she apologized for any crimes the newspaper may have committed.
Brooks, who quit on Friday as chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper operations, also denied any wrongdoing and dismissed media reports about her friendship Prime Minister David Cameron, saying the relationship was "wholly appropriate."
"I've read many, many allegations about my current relationship with David Cameron, including my extensive horse riding with him each weekend up in Oxfordshire. I have never been horse riding with the prime minister," she said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Simon Robinson)