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LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch belittled a British police inquiry into bribes allegedly paid by his journalists in a secret recording made by his staff, in sharp contrast to the profuse public apologies he made to defuse anger at news gathering practices.
Murdoch told staff at his Sun tabloid in a private meeting in March that he had been wrong to help the police investigation into tactics he said reporters had used for decades, and promised unspecified support to reporters snared by the inquiry.
A News Corp spokeswoman defended Murdoch and the firm but did not question the accuracy of the recording, which was made by a member of staff at the meeting in London and obtained by the Exaro investigation website.
Murdoch, the head of News Corp and 21st Century Fox, had described himself as humbled and appalled by the revelations of illegality and phone hacking that forced the closure of his prized News of the World tabloid two years ago.
But in the private meeting with staff the media mogul railed against police and said he had cooperated too closely with them when an internal committee he set up supplied thousands of internal emails at the height of the scandal.
"I will do everything in my power to give you total support, even if you're convicted and get six months or whatever," he told a room full of Sun journalists, including some of the 23 who have been arrested for making payments to public officials.
"We're talking about payments for news tips from cops: that's been going on a hundred years," he said, adding that he remembered being told about the need for cash for "powerful friends" when he bought the News of the World in 1969.
The recording was made during a meeting designed to rebuild relations between the two sides following the revelations of July 2011. It was also aired by Britain's Channel 4 TV station.
Murdoch, the world's most powerful media tycoon, was forced to close his mass-selling News of the World Sunday paper following the admission that his staff had hacked into the phones of hundreds of people to generate scoops, including one owned by a murdered teenager.
Since then, tens more have been arrested from the daily Sun newspaper for making payments to public officials while others were arrested for attempts to pervert the course of justice.
The reporters have denied the allegations.
The Australian-born magnate, who had for years been courted by British politicians from all sides, was forced to appear before parliament to apologise for the behaviour of his staff. He was hit in the face with a foam pie by a protester during the hearing.
A News Corp spokeswoman, responding to the recording, 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 spokeswoman said.
"Mr Murdoch never knew of payments made by Sun staff to police before News Corporation disclosed that to UK Authorities. Furthermore, he never said he knew of payments. It's absolutely false to suggest otherwise."
"Why are the police behaving in this way?" Murdoch said in the recording. "It's the biggest inquiry ever, over next to nothing.
"What you're asking is: what happens if some of you are proven guilty? What afterwards? I'm not allowed to promise you ... I've got to be careful what comes out - but frankly, I won't say it, but just trust me."
When one journalist in the room said "it would be nice to hit back," Murdoch replied "We will, we will."
The grainy recording revealed Murdoch at times raising his voice and sounding angry, at others speaking slowly and with consideration.
Asked what would happen once the 82-year-old was no longer around to support the newspapers, Murdoch replied that the decision would be either with "my son, Lachlan, or with Robert Thomson. And you don't have any worries about either of them."
Robert Thomson is the head of the publishing business called News Corp which was recently spun off from the entertainment assets held by 21st Century Fox. Murdoch did not mention his other son James who had for years been seen as the heir apparent until he too became tangled up in the hacking affair.
Murdoch said he made the wrong decision when he set up an internal committee to investigate staff and hand over information to the police, and spoke with horror at the way his former protege Rebekah Brooks was detained by officers during an early morning house raid.
News Corp had previously made much of its cooperation with the police, which sparked anger from staff who felt they had been handed over to the authorities and deserted in a bid to protect the reputation of the wider company.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Jon Boyle