Looking back at the publication of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's report on News International and Phone-Hacking I can't help thinking of a famous man of Australian birth, well known in the UK media and a former favourite of Margaret Thatcher. Yes, Rolf Harris would often ask viewers of his art programmes, when halfway through a painting, "can you tell what it is yet?"
The opportunity to give people a clear view of the committee's work and findings in our long inquiry into phone hacking has been lost. The chance for a group of 11 politicians drawn from across the House of Commons to unite in a series of powerful and evidence based conclusions has been missed. Rupert Murdoch will be the person most pleased with this result as he can claim that our report is split and politically motivated. This will also give comfort to the senior executives from News Corporation that the committee decided unanimously had misled parliament. The attention given to the report has not focused on our key findings, but instead how MPs voted on the insertion of a single sentence into the report, "We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company."
Rupert and James Murdoch gave evidence to our committee in July 2011, and we did not debate the inclusion of this line until 30 April 2012. The inquiry we had launched was to determine whether or not people at News Corporation had misled parliament on what they knew about the extent of phone hacking within that company's newspapers, and particularly at the News of the World. We never set out to investigate whether or not Rupert Murdoch is a 'fit person' just whether he and his executives had misled parliament. If they had it would be a matter for the UK media regulator Ofcom, to determine whether or not News Corporation was fit to hold a broadcasting licence in this country, and for the shareholders of the company to decide whether he is fit to stay in his post.
As it was we found that Rupert Murdoch's former right hand man, Les Hinton, the former editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler and the News of the World Legal Manager Tom Crone had all misled the committee. The evidence presented to the committee did not support making this charge against the Murdoch's and no member pressed for this claim to be made. That did not mean that the Murdoch's would escape criticism. We stated that the company, in our opinion 'exhibited wilful blindness', that it was 'simply astonishing' that the Murdochs didn't realise until late 2010 that phone hacking extended beyond the single rogue reporter, and we question the 'competence' of James Murdoch in his handling of the settlement of the Gordon Taylor case. On all of these important points the Committee could have come to unanimous agreement in finalising the report; a much stronger position for us to be in, and one that would have made it harder for people to dismiss the charges.
Instead of this, we divided over a single line about Rupert Murdoch being a 'fit person' which was outside of the inquiry and a matter for the independent regulator Ofcom to separately investigate; which it is doing. In the end, the committee decided to play the man rather than the ball, and as a result missed the open goal.