What next for the phone hacking report?


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The grand announcement of the Culture Media and Sport Committee's verdict on phone hacking has just dissolved into cross-party bickering.

The committee had been looking into whether its earlier inquiry into phone hacking allegations had been lied to.

It says the News of the World and News International "corporately" misled the committee, as well as accusing in-house lawyer Tom Crone, former NoW editor Colin Myler and former executive chairman Les Hinton of misleading them on particular issues.

The report accuses Rupert and James Murdoch of "wilful 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". That finding could, in theory, have implications for his role in charge of his TV empire - and no Conservative member of the committee was prepared to support it.

The swing vote was the committee's sole Lib Dem, 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 scrutinised.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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