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No consequences

Jon Snow, the veteran British newsreader opines on the case of Rupert Murdoch's appearances before the Media Select Committee:

One of the most hard hitting reports of recent times, resulting from one of the intensive investigations will result in almost no Parliamentary action. Not because, on essential elements, there was a split on the Committee, but because even where there was no dissent – in finding that the Committee had in effect been lied to – there is no current consequence of worth. MPs can open the window on wrongdoing, but they can do all but nothing when they find it. Exposing it has little direct effect...

Hence the call by a number of MPs for such investigative bodies to be armed with the power of subpoena and the giving of evidence on oath.

Even now, the legal experts that flank the Speaker in the Commons are trawling the statutes for punishments that are fit for the misdemeanor of “misleading the House”. Will they find a cell in the Tower of London? As of last night the speculation centered on an arcane provision that allows for the detention of offenders “within Parliament”.

The Murdoch Empire operatives have done parliament a favor. They have exposed the antiquity and weakness of our own political system, and its inability to bring miscreants to book. To resort to the word MPs themselves coined of Rupert Murdoch – it is “unfit” for purpose. But don’t hold your breath against anything being done about it.

The parallels to the Science and Technology Committee's inquiries into Climategate are marked. I actually looked into the taking of evidence on oath some time ago, and as far as I could make out then, select committees actually can ask for evidence on oath but simply don't like to do so. It's interesting that Jon Snow seems to have a different idea. Perhaps someone can put one of us right.

It would be nice to see some of those involved in Climategate and the inquiries being held to account for misleading Parliament. But as Snow says, I don't think we should hold our breath.

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Reader Comments (24)

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate, with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

1. Should the committees (and/or Parliament) ever be empowered in the way the Bishop refers to then they will have to work out how to do their job properly.
2. On the TV I have watched the following examples of committees totally failing to investigate leads proffered by their witnesses:
(i) The Goldman Sacks (or whatever) hearing before some US senate committee. The committee totally failed to understand why investment in derivatives is often desirable and were ‘down’ on the whole business. However, they seemed to miss the point that one part of Goldman were knowingly selling a derivative that another part of Goldman knew to be doomed, or to question whether such practices were proper.
(ii) The first Murdock hearing. Murdock’s empire had been shown to be involved in illegal goings on, but the committee didn’t go very far in querying how the information never got to the top. Nobody asked if the empire’s management systems had developed specifically to ensure that such information would never be k known there. Nobody asked whether it was a proper that a single minded focus on profit should have been allowed to overwhelm all other considerations, including legal ones. So Murdock did not know about the phone hacking. True, of course, but why? And would he not agree that he should demonstrate the contrition he so evidently felt at his failure to respond to the turn events had taken by stepping down? After all, he has taken the pay due to the successful. How could he uphold the claim that he was the best person to run the empire in the face of such a failure? And so on. But none of these points were pressed home.
3. So why? Because politicians, whose expertise is in getting and staying elected, are not, as a breed, equipped, to cross examine.
4. The system needs altering so that the politicians are backed up by forensic experts, possibly lawyers, and proceedings organized so that such people have the ability to impact, albeit possibly not directly, their flow.

(And stop paying politicians – at all!)

May 3, 2012 at 3:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

Bish, I remember the previous thread on this and am pretty sure that you are right. It seems that the Committee didn't require evidence to be given under oath, thereby severely limiting their options in the event of somebody being exposed as lying to the Committee. That said, they could reconvene and ask the questions again, this time requiring witnesses to take the oath, although that would be pretty clumsy as a solution.

I imagine that they figure the negative publicity that lying to a Parliamentary Committee attracts is enough of a disincentive, and that's probably true most of the time. But why they don't take the belt and braces option by routinely requiring all witnesses to take the oath is hard to fathom.

May 3, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

I am absolutely not a fan of the Murdochs.

But there must be a difference between using illegal means to provide the Great British Public with the endless supply of salacious tittle-tattle about nonebrities that the public craves, on the one hand, and telling whoppers to MPs about "science", upon which multi billion policy decisions are being made.

As at the Climategate "inquiries".

The fact that almost all MPs have firmly nailed their colours to the cAGW mast makes this difference of approach more understandable but it certainly doesn't excuse it.

And, whilst it is possible to claim that you can't expect MPs to understand the finer points of radiative transfer, thermodynamics, adiabatic lapse rates and so on, one would hope that a few of them can still add up, even if they have to press their toes into service to supplement their grubby fingers.

So how come we are not seeing any investigation into the criminal conspiracy to mislead and steal taxpayers' and energy users' money by BigWind? The generation figures are available. They can easily be compared to the Ruinables' claims.

May 3, 2012 at 6:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Any law (or legal process) likely to be effective in preventing media organisations from behaving in ways that offend one or other sector of society would inevitably abused by governments to stifle dissent, and would totally destroy the freedom of the press that our Anglophone concepts of democracy need for survival. No matter how offensive we might find the behaviour of some journalists or media proprietors, government-controlled media would be infinitely worse.

What is surprising is that the British public would stand still while their politicians appointed what is nothing more than an official witch-hunt. The police exist to deal with offences under telephone tapping laws, and if the Hugh Grants of this world and other "celebrities" don't like the heat of publicity, that's tough, but that comes with the territory. If they claim to have been defamed, they have their remedies without resorting to government witch-hunts.

May 3, 2012 at 7:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterMique

I'm simply bored by the BBC's obsession with the Murdochs and this inquiry. He's a bad man, we get it. It's hardly top news every day for 3 weeks.

May 3, 2012 at 7:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

I like that!
As to why questions aren't asked under oath, could it be because the truth is not wanted to be out?
It's easy to see why with climate, show that CO2 isn't such a bogeyman & then the general population will start asking some awkward questions, not the least about why we're paying so much tax, on so many essentials, with a "You're bad for using this wot produces lots of carbons" component.
With Murdoch, he's got quite some power as a Kingmaker, so having his rags onside is highly desirable for whoever's in power or wishes to be in power.

May 3, 2012 at 8:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

There's a very good reason Parliament can't punish - it's called separation of powers.

The americans took it to its logical conclusion in their constitution but it's there in our traditions. Please don't ever campaign for parliament to be able to be jury and executioner.

I would have expected a more informed piece from Jon Snow (who presumably is PPE Oxford like the rest).

May 3, 2012 at 9:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

On principle I have never had a Sky subscription because of Murdoch's involvement, however the last thing we should ever do is allow our MP's to be able to apply sanctions. Welcome to 1984 if we do, as Caroline says, MP's are lawmakers and Judges apply the law.

May 3, 2012 at 9:59 AM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

I have no opinion of Murdoch, but I am shocked by this pernicious attack on him that appears to be succeeding. What we need is the introduction of the operation motorman files. The government has evidence of identical malpractice by the rest of the press. If my recollection is correct the Mirror was worst, with Guardian well ahead of News International. Lets have a level playing field here

May 3, 2012 at 10:01 AM | Unregistered Commenterkirk elder

Caroline, I'm pretty sure that Parliaments based on the Westminster model already have the power to punish - it's called contempt of Parliament and is generally embedded in the Standing Orders. The Australian Parliament, which is based on the Mother of Parliaments (yours!) certainly does.

But quite rightly, they are very reluctant to use this power, partly because it is seen as tyrannical and partly because in practice they don't have many options for sanctions - fines or imprisonment are about it, and they really don't want to go there.

MPs who get caught out lying might face a motion criticising their behaviour at worst, so imposing harsher sanctions on members of the public than they do on themselves is not really an option for them. And, they do have the luxury of Parliamentary Privilege which can be used to say lots of unflattering things about people who lie to Committees, without any fear of libel suits.

May 3, 2012 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

Whoa, Martin, 'nonebrities' and 'ruinables', all in one comment. Very impressive.

May 3, 2012 at 10:23 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

The old joke about Murdoch is that for Fox he found a niche market, half of America.

May 3, 2012 at 10:28 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Would you really want punitive sanctions to be in the hands of people with the intellectual capacity and degree of self interest common to most politicians?

May 3, 2012 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

False unsworn statement under Evidence (Proceedings in Other Jurisdictions) Act 1975.E+W.If any person, in giving any testimony (either orally or in writing) otherwise than on oath, where required to do so by an order under section 2 of the Evidence (Proceedings in Other Jurisdictions) Act 1975, makes a statement—
(a)which he knows to be false in a material particular, or .
(b)which is false in a material particular and which he does not believe to be true, .
he shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both.]

May 3, 2012 at 10:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

I don't trust our MPs to make objective, evidence-based, judgements as they are too politically partisan. Best not to give them any powers of punishment - it's bad enough having to watch them 'grandstanding' on these televised committees. No wonder we have no respect for them whatsoever.

May 3, 2012 at 11:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobB


Agreed - Martin seems to be on form. I may well use both of those!

May 3, 2012 at 12:28 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

IIRC, when denied UK citizenship many years ago, Murdoch declared that he would ‘ruin that little country’, so not much sympathy from me, I’m afraid.

May 3, 2012 at 12:33 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Bishop Hill said:

... and as far as I could make out then, select committees actually can ask for evidence on oath but simply don't like to do so.

There is an example of this from late last year: HMRC top lawyer forced to swear oath in Parliament

MPs questioning the top lawyer at HM Revenue and Customs have taken the unusual step of making him swear an oath to tell the truth.

Members of the Commons Public Accounts Committee felt they had been unable to get answers from Anthony Inglese.

The session was part of an inquiry into tax deals negotiated by HMRC with Vodafone and Goldman Sachs.

If they didn't question Murdoch and others under oath it is because they didn't want to.

How is Jon Snow so poorly informed?

May 3, 2012 at 1:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

@Caroline, May 3, 2012 at 9:04 AM:

I would have expected a more informed piece from Jon Snow (who presumably is PPE Oxford like the rest).

I have come to the conclusion, bearing in mind all the "notables" in government etc in posession of PPEs, that they are the Oxbridge equivalent of "Media Studies".

May 3, 2012 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterPogo

It wasn't just Murdoch. But since Murdoch is the anti-christ for the sin of not be left of center, he is the one attacked.

If only journalists (and I laugh when I type that word) cared about left-wing bias at the BBC or the Guardian.

May 3, 2012 at 4:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

IIRC, when denied UK citizenship many years ago, Murdoch declared that he would ‘ruin that little country’, so not much sympathy from me, I’m afraid.

May 3, 2012 at 12:33 PM | jamesp

He need not have concerned himself. Tgheir politicians are capable of ruining the UK without his help.

May 3, 2012 at 8:44 PM | Unregistered Commenterstephen richards

Interestingly the esteemed Professor Phillip Jones has yet to make any statement sworn, signed, or otherwise about "Climategate".
Not one of the "Inquiries" requested this.

I pointed this out in Court when I turned over the ICO's decision that requested emails "were not held". The Judge noted in his decision:
"We also took into account that we heard no evidence as to what the relevant email did contain beyond the reported assertion by Prof Jones (who did not himself provide any evidence) that it didn’t contain any such matter.

May 4, 2012 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Jon Snow: LL.B Liverpool 1968-1971. I was there contemporaneously. He was an activist then, too.

May 4, 2012 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterDB

Rupert Murdoch is a man who has risked his own money and with good business acumen and judgement, has been globally successful in the newspaper business and other businesses. When has this become a crime in the UK?
I watched some of the hearings of the UK parliament witch hunt, and I was disgusted. If I had been Murdoch, I would have given them the two fingered salute and walked out. Those parliamentarians signified what is wrong with Britain - class envy and class warfare. Fiddling while Rome burns. The Uk has lost its sovereignty to the Europeans, which had nothing to do with anything Murdoch does.

May 8, 2012 at 6:31 AM | Unregistered Commenterxyzlatin

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