News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch shared some words of apology when he appeared Thursday before a public inquiry. (REUTERS TV/REUTERS)

Here are nine words you might never have thought you’d hear from media titan Rupert Murdoch: “I failed, and I am very sorry about it.”

But that’s just what the News Corp. founder said when he appeared Thursday before a public inquiry that asked, among other things, how his company handled the now-shuttered News of the World phone-hacking scandal. He said he should have focused on the matter when it first surfaced, agreed that not doing so was an omission on his part, and called the scandal “a serious blot on my reputation.”

Too bad such statements of humility were paired with combative retorts and castings of blame. In the Leveson Inquiry, which is examining press ethics, Murdoch said he does “blame one or two people” for shielding him and other executives. “There’s no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that, someone took charge of a cover-up, which we were victim to and I regret.”

I haven’t followed every detail of News Corp.’s long-running phone-hacking mess. Perhaps there were efforts by employees to shield Murdoch from what was going on. But in lashing back at a questioner and suggesting a cover-up in Thursday’s hearing, Murdoch did little to shore up the apology and admission that he should have acted differently himself. While that may be natural for a man sitting in front of a judge-led public inquiry, the words “I’m sorry” lose a lot when they come just before or just after a statement of blame.

Murdoch seemed to catch himself at times when he reacted with anger or disdain, such as when he scoffed at a questioner who asked whether the company’s response was “consistent with one of a desire to cover up rather than a desire to expose.” Maybe, Murdoch said, “to people with minds like yours,” before he said he’d take the comment back and reached out his hand to the questioner.

But he did little to stop himself from pointing fingers. Leaders who alternate contrition with criticism may be speaking their minds, but the mixed message leaves people remembering neither one. In switching between remorse and rebuttals, Murdoch’s apology lost much of its power, and his moments of introspection lost much of their punch.

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