Posted on 1st May 2012 @ 9:42 AM
This story continues to make international headlines: the News of the World cell phone hacking scandal. Now, what should have been a simple investigation and prosecution for law enforcement and government has devolved into a big cross-party argument. Now, the committee responsible for the investigation believes that they may have been lied to during their earlier inquisition and report.
The investigative committee has revealed that News of the World may have misled the investigators with their answers, meaning even more lies. They also accused lawyer Tom Crone, former News of the World editor Colin Myler and former executive chairman Les Hinton of misleading them on particular issues.
The report accuses Rupert and James Murdoch of "willful blindness" and, in its most damaging finding, says that Rupert Murdoch is not a "fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company". To summarize, the report is saying that the Murdoch’s know about the phone hackings, but simply chose to ignore the facts or turn a blind eye to the entire incident. If those allegations turn out to be true, then Rupert Murdoch would likely find his TV empire in jeopardy.
At this time, the committee is voting on what action it should take to punish the persons responsible at News of the World. This is where the conflict is coming in, as the voting seems to be split between Republicans and Democrats. The swing vote was the committee's sole Liberal Democrat, Adrian Sanders; if he had voted the other way, that vote would have been tied, and the committee Chair John Whittingdale hinted strongly at the press conference that he would have used his casting vote to block that particular finding.
Select committee reports always carry more clout if they're unanimous; this one is clearly not - with key votes breaking down on party lines. Labour's Tom Watson expressed disappointment that some members were not able to support criticisms of Rupert Murdoch put down by himself and his Labour colleague Paul Farrelly. He launched into a long speech about the record of News International, and looked discomforted when some of the journalists laughed out loud when he concluded. Conservative Philip Davies said some committee members had drafted their conclusions before the evidence had even been heard. Boys, boys….
The committee will now put a motion to the House of Commons, when it reconvenes next week, asking MPs to endorse its conclusions. Will the Conservative members put down an amendment to remove the bit about Rupert Murdoch?
The report says it will be for the House to decide what punishment should be imposed. But it's not clear what their powers are. It's nearly 60 years since John Junor of the Sunday Express was summoned to the Bar of the House to be "admonished" for alleging that some MPs were abusing their parliamentary petrol rations.
Will assorted dignitaries and ex-dignitaries from News International be similarly summoned? Will they be banged up in the special Westminster cell reserved for those who offend Parliament, which has not been used in around a century? There is a real question as to whether Parliament's ancient right to punish people for contempt complies with the European Convention of Human Rights.
The actual punishment could be messy, but the politics could be equally difficult for the Conservatives. If they decide to strike down the "not a fit person" finding against Rupert Murdoch, they could find themselves in an uncomfortable position. The motion that goes before the Commons will doubtless be carefully drafted, and closely scrutinized.