Chris Bryant: Phone Hacking Shows How MPs Committees Need Real Teeth
Last week the phone hacking saga took a new twist when the Commons Culture Committee diligently tried to squeeze some semblance of clarity out of four former employees of News International. It's the second time this summer that the Grimmond Room in Portcullis House has been the focal point of the phone hacking saga - and covered for hours by all the rolling news channels.
What were the highlights? It could be former legal manager Tom Crone's allegedly "unclear and contradictory" claims about what James Murdoch knew or didn't know about the widespread phone hacking on the News of the World. But perhaps the better and more accessible soundbite come from former News of the World editor Clive Myler: "An editor's life is bit like a football managers job. You stay when you perform. You go when you don't. "
Unfortunately large chunks of the evidence before MPs this week was opaque and detailed, probing into what outsiders would view as the finer points about working life at News International. Why didn't the head of HR have oversight on payments made to Glenn Mulcaire? Why was the head of legal not consulted on day-to-day issues on the newspapers and only took a view on employment matters relating to the former Royal reporter Clive Goodman?
Labour MP for Rhondda Chris Bryant believes the problem comes partly because the committee isn't strong enough to get at the truth. "In the end I think some of these decisions will have to be decided by something that is more like a court than a political process.
"The one thing that Parliament will have to decide is whether Parliament's been lied to, and if so by whom, because of the Bill of Rights 1689, no other body can question a proceeding in Parliament. We've been counting the lies, we're getting up to a pretty hefty number now, and somebody will have to atone for those, I think."
But Bryant is concerned that some members of the Culture Committee haven't been up to the job: "I'm rather critical of Louise Mensch because in July I thought she was bending over backwards to help James Murdoch out - and I think Therese Coffey now slightly regrets that she was a big defender of Rebekah Brooks at one point."
But Bryant's main gripe is the committee's failure to use powers it already has to give its own sessions more teeth. "Committees have the power to have evidence taken on oath - they very rarely use it and I don't know why. But I think it should be made statutory.
"I think sometimes committees should think about hiring a QC to do the questioning. Sometimes I think we ask too many open questions and people can just witter on. James Murdoch wittered on for forever and a day. There would be a value in certain circumstances in people being allowed to use counsel. Not always, but sometimes."
But if Parliament has been lied to, surely that should be deemed a serious offence? Bryant thinks so, but is less sure whether anything would be done about it: "What Parliament can do is debatable, but we could have a motion of the House which required those who lied to be arraigned before the Bar of the House.
"In theory we can fine and imprison, in practice we haven't done it for a very long time, several centuries."
Bryant claims his constituents in the Rhondda find hacking fascinating - but admits that's partly because of the hilly nature of his seat which meant that for years the only way people could get Channel 4 was by paying for it through Sky: "Boffing Murdoch on the chin, as far as my constituents were concerned, I think they think has been a good thing."
It's unclear whether James Murdoch will be called to appear again before the Commons Committee. But Ben Page at IPSOS Mori believes the public want to know the truth about what went on: "Public revulsion at innocent members of the public being hacked for no good reason, and the apparent prevalence of this illegal behaviour, means there is a public appetite for whatever the end game is."
Nevertheless some media commentators are nervous about whether the public will remain interested in phone hacking, despite the likliehood of the lengthy Leveson Inquiry's to produce headlines about it for months to come. The former newspaper editor Roy Greenslade, writing in the Evening Standard, says he's heard anecdotally from people that phone-hacking is no longer an obsession for them.
The question for Parliament the months to come will be whether MPs decide they've been lied to, and how it plans to respond to such lies. With the prospect of numerous celebrities appearing before the Leveson Inquiry to protest at how their phones were hacked, the temptation will be to allow the focus to shift elsewhere, and for other public inquiries - chiefly the one into last month's rioting - to jostle for attention in the headlines.
Chris Bryant cautions against allowing new developments in the story to drown out serious issues about the way the Committee system works, and how it could be reformed:
"James Murdoch chose his words so carefully, and people didn't quite spot how carefully he'd chosen them. And that's why you should have to give evidence under oath, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What Murdoch said may have not been an outright lie, but I think it was not the whole truth."