By Georgina Prodhan and Mark Hosenball
LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch is famous for not taking advice, but even the world's most powerful media mogul had to submit to days of preparation by top lawyers before testifying to a British press ethics inquiry.
Although the 81-year-old appeared impetuous in many of his retorts and barbed one-liners, he had been prepared for the Leveson Inquiry by two of his company's top legal minds, according to people familiar with the coaching who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.
Gerson Zweifach, News Corp's chief legal counsel, and Joel Klein, an ex-White House lawyer and company board member who is helping lead a corporate clean-up in response to the phone-hacking scandal, held practice sessions with Murdoch.
One of those familiar with the coaching said Murdoch's preparation took "days". Another said some rehearsals took place in London before his appearance at the inquiry, where he answered questions on phone-hacking and political influence.
By contrast, his son James, appearing the day before Rupert, gave a more polished but sometimes mechanical performance, reflecting days of intensive coaching by a team including public-relations specialists.
One of his advisers, who was not involved in briefing him for the inquiry, said: "I thought he sounded overly lawyered and too convoluted. He also seems incapable of straight answers. I thought his father did better."
News Corp declined to comment for this article.
In court, Rupert Murdoch gave the impression of having paid little attention to his coaching, even boasting he was ignoring it as he launched an attack on Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, a rival to Murdoch's daily tabloid The Sun.
"I'm under strict instructions by my lawyers not to say this," he began, prompting Judge Brian Leveson to respond: "I think you've just caused three coronaries," referring to Murdoch's contingent of lawyers in the court.
Murdoch continued: "But I was really shocked by the statement of Mr Dacre the other day, that his editorial policy is driven by commercial interests. I think that is about the most unethical thing I've read for a long time."
Zweifach, a former litigator with white-collar criminal defense law firm Williams & Connolly, was in court with Murdoch, as were Klein, senior Linklaters partner John Turnbull, Murdoch's wife Wendi, son Lachlan and several others.
Williams & Connolly is advising News Corp on how to deal with U.S. government inquiries.
Turnbull got to his feet in agitation when Murdoch agreed there had been a corporate cover-up of the scandal, causing a delay in proceedings as Leveson urged him to sit down and not to repeat the action.
"Rupert famously doesn't take advice," said a person familiar with the Murdochs. "James does, he's certainly taken the legal advice very seriously."
James's days of careful preparation by a team of four or five lawyers and communications specialists showed as he appeared word-perfect, especially in the telling and retelling of key events where he ran the risk of incriminating himself.
James Murdoch had spent some time preparing in New York before more rehearsals in London just before the hearing, said one person familiar with the situation.
His team was led by Jeremy Sandelson, global head of litigation for Clifford Chance, who also steered James through his November appearance before a parliamentary committee investigating the phone-hacking scandal, two sources said.
Clifford Chance did not respond to a request for comment.
Sandelson's former clients include Piers Morgan, a former editor of Murdoch's News of the World and of the rival Daily Mirror, whom he helped clear of charges related to share-tipping.
James Murdoch's team also included Matthew Anderson, his right-hand man who has just quit as group director of strategy and corporate affairs for News Corp Europe and Asia but continues to be a senior adviser to the company.
Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.
Anderson was the boss of Frederic Michel, News Corp's top London lobbyist, who is at the centre of questions on whether News Corp had inappropriate access to ministerial time and sensitive information during a contested takeover of BSkyB last year.
Numerous emails between Michel and James Murdoch were read out in court during James's appearance on Tuesday, in which Michel boasted of assurances he had been given about the progress of approving the bid by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Hunt's top aide, Adam Smith, resigned the following day, and senior opposition figures have called for the minister himself to go, or at least to subject himself to an investigation.
(additional reporting by Kirstin Ridley; editing by Elizabeth Piper)