Rupert Murdoch blamed News of the World journalists for conspiring to cover up a culture of phone hacking at the newspaper.

He told the Leveson Inquiry that senior executives were not informed, or misinformed, and "shielded" from what was going on.

Mr Murdoch painted a picture of a rogue culture at the tabloid, in an echo of his company's now abandoned defence that a single "rogue reporter" was to blame.

"I think in newspapers, the reporters do act very much on their own, they do protect their sources, they don't disclose to their colleagues what they are doing," he told a judicial inquiry into press ethics.

Showing frequent flashes of annoyance as the questioning became more pointed, Mr Murdoch admitted he had not paid enough attention to the News of the World but did not accept that he had allowed a culture of illegality to flourish.

Asked where the culture of cover-up had originated, he answered: "I think from within the News of the World. There were one or two very strong characters there who I think had been there many, many years and were friends of the journalists.

"The person I'm thinking of was a friend of the journalists and a drinking pal and clever lawyer and forbade them ... to report to Mrs [Rebekah] Brooks or to James," said Mr Murdoch, in a thinly veiled reference to the News of the World's former top lawyer, Tom Crone, who has accused James Murdoch of lying.

"That's not to excuse on our behalf at all. I take it extremely seriously that that situation had arisen."

The appearance at the inquiry of a man who has courted prime ministers and presidents for the last 40 years is a defining moment in a scandal that has laid bare collusion between British politicians, police and Murdoch's News Corp.

Yesterday, Mr Murdoch had appeared calm and considered, but today's tone was more hostile as the inquiry's top counsel Robert Jay ratcheted up the pressure and described the culture of phone hacking as a "cancer".

When Mr Jay suggested that the response of News International, the British newspaper arm of News Corp, was a "desire to cover up, not expose", Mr Murdoch snapped back: "Well, to people with minds like yours," before quickly adding "I take that back."

Mr Jay, keeping his cool, assured him: "I'm very thick-skinned Mr Murdoch. Do not worry one moment."

The comment caused consternation among Mr Murdoch's legal team in the courtroom, forcing Judge Brian Leveson to ask one of the party to sit down before resuming proceedings.

Rebekah Brooks, a former News of the World editor and favourite of Mr Murdoch, resigned as chief executive of News International last July after Mr Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid.