RUPERT Murdoch privately downplayed the significance of the alleged payment of bribes by his journalists to public officials, according to a secret recording.
The 82-year-old mogul was caught on tape during a frank discussion with reporters from The Sun who had been arrested in connection with Operation Elveden - Scotland Yard's continuing investigation into corrupt payments by journalists.
In the exchange at the London headquarters of News International - renamed News UK this week as part of the billionaire's strategy to finally draw a line under years of scandal by splitting his media empire in two - Mr Murdoch also described the Metropolitan Police as "incompetent".
The remarks, captured on a recording obtained by Channel 4 News and the investigative website Exaro, will be held up as evidence of a disparity between Mr Murdoch's repeated public contrition over the existence of phone hacking and illegal news gathering within his British newspapers and a less apologetic stance behind closed doors.
In March the tycoon held a 45-minute meeting at Wapping with more than 20 executives and reporters from The Sun who had been arrested in connection with Operation Elveden over claims they had paid public officials, including police officers, for information.
Two prison officers were detained by detectives in Kent last month, bringing the number of arrests to 69. Two police officers have so far been sentenced to prison terms for passing information to News International titles.
Mr Murdoch was recorded telling his employees: "The idea that the cops then started coming after you, kick you out of bed, and your families, at six in the morning, is unbelievable.
"But why are the police behaving in this way? It's the biggest inquiry ever, over next to nothing… I mean, it's a disgrace. Here we are, two years later, and the cops are totally incompetent."
The recording shows Mr Murdoch attempting to calm the anger and concern of his employees: "I will do everything in my power to give you total support, even if you're convicted and get six months or whatever.
"You're all innocent until proven guilty. What you're asking is: what happens if some of you are proven guilty? What afterwards?
"I'm not allowed to promise you - I will promise you continued health support - but your jobs. I've got to be careful what comes out - but frankly, I won't say it, but just trust me."
Asked what would happen if he was not around to support them he said the decision would lie with his son, Lachlan, or Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp and former editor of The Times. "And you don't have any worries about either of them," Mr Murdoch added.
News UK strongly denied that Mr Murdoch knew payments had been made from his own titles to police until News Corp's own internal investigation uncovered evidence which was subsequently handed over by the company's Management and Standards Committee (MSC).
In a statement, News Corp said: "No other company has done as much to identify what went wrong, compensate the victims and ensure the same mistakes do not happen again.
"The unprecedented co-operation granted by News Corp was agreed unanimously by senior management and the board, and the MSC continues to co-operate under the supervision of the courts.
"Rupert Murdoch has shown understandable empathy with the staff and families affected and will assume they are innocent until and unless proven guilty."