The public spectacle of calling former News International executives to the bar of the House of Commons by way of punishing them for allegedly misleading parliament could be a "reputational disaster" for MPs, a senior Commons official has warned.
Robert Rogers, the clerk of the House, said on Monday that recent events have shown to a wider audience what all insiders always knew; that there are considerable doubts about whether parliament could actually do anything to punish people.
He made the comments in a note examining the powers of select committees requested by the chairman of the public administration committee, Tory MP Bernard Jenkin.
Three former News International executives, Tom Crone, Colin Myler and Les Hinton, face the prospect of being called to the Bar of the House, fined, or even imprisoned, if they are found to have misled parliament over the phone hacking scandal - a charge they deny.
However Rogers warned yesterday that in "modern circumstances, as a televised proceeding" calling them to the Bar would "risk being a pantomime".
"Consider: the miscreant is brought to the Bar, accompanied by the Serjeant with the Mace, and is admonished by the Speaker in front of the House.
"Even assuming that the miscreant is prepared to come (and a refusal would be a further embarrassment) the proceedings are not controllable, and the House would risk looking like a lynch mob.
"The Speaker stands and delivers a rebuke, at a range of some 30 yards. Then what? The individual at the Bar, in prime TV time, may decide to have a go at the House and the treatment he or she has received.
"If the individual really does have a case, or perhaps produces some surprise piece of evidence which makes it clear that the House has got it wrong, the result could be a reputational disaster."
One other possible punishment would be to imprison the three men, as suggested by Labour MP and phone hacking campaigner Chris Bryant.
The power to imprison people found in contempt of parliament was used widely used in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but it was last used in 1880.
Rogers warns that reviving this power risked leaving the Commons open to legal challenge "on grounds of arbitrariness".
He adds: "The prospect of breaching the requirements of Articles 5 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the high probability of the United Kingdom being taken to the Court of Human Rights  is a substantial reputational risk."