How the hacking saga unfolded

A fascinating exploration of the anatomy of a parliamentary campaign. I squeezed into the Macmillan Room in Portcullis House on Wednesday night to hear the Parliamentary Affairs Annual Lecture, given by Tom Watson, the Labour former minister, who led the charge on the hacking inquiry on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

All sorts of interesting nuggets emerged, including the revelation that Mr Watson was on the verge of quitting Parliament when the hacking stories began to appear in The Guardian and his select committee decided to revisit its earlier inquiry into media misconduct. He was rather bruised by his interlude as a minister and joined the committee, he said, because he enjoyed films, karaoke and football… but I do find myself doubting if such a hardened politico would have gone through with it and given up Parliament, in the end.

His account of the campaign which followed, to lift the lid on the News of the World's activities, detailed how a group of MPs decided to keep the issue live through constant questions to the prime minister and other ministers, points of order and pointed questioning at committee inquiries. But, most interestingly, he said that use of Freedom of Information requests were now probably a more important tool that parliamentary questions, and he now used them more, because they usually revealed more information than ministers would normally disgorge.

He said that FoI requests for details of the registers of hospitality received by key figures in the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service had proved particularly revealing. Perhaps an indicator of where the hacking inquiry will go next?

Mr Watson argued for more powers for select committees to summon witnesses - because where the hearings are likely to be adversarial, witnesses often play hard to get, and the Commons' powers to summon them are obscure and out of date. He also suggested that committees needed the ability to use a barrister to spearhead cross examinations in those circumstances - because most MPs did not have those skills, and their questioning was seldom well-co-ordinated.

And interestingly, he wanted Labour to campaign to beef up the Freedom of Information laws to bring more transparency to the work of government. He argued that this was one way to empower citizens in an age of austerity… and since he is a vice chair of the Labour Party we can assume this is more than just a bit of speculative plugging of a pet cause.

Meanwhile, the CMS Select Committee will meet again next Thursday for its third attempt at finalising its report on the hacking inquiry - it has been taking a while because, I understand, the committee is pretty polarised.

It will have to decide whether it believes it has been lied to by any of the witnesses who gave conflicting accounts of events in News Corp. Shades of expression between "it beggars belief that.." and "we have no reason to accept…" will be scrutinised very closely, when the report finally emerges - which could take quite a while yet.

* Tom Watson's Parliamentary Affairs Annual Lecture will be broadcast on BBC Parliament on Saturday 21 January at 9pm.

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