openDemocracyUK

Is Murdoch still corrupting Parliament's Select Committee?

Is the British parliamentary investigation of the Murdoch press proceeding with collusion between the Murdochs and members of the Committee investigating their behaviour and its influence? We should be given the evidence to allow us to decide.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
19 April 2012

When the scandal of Murdoch's influence finally broke in July last year – thanks team Guardian – I took the opportunity to support the argument that father and son are not fit and proper people to run our media companies. I followed it up with an analysis of how Murdoch locked into the political structure of British rule (or misrule) in After Murdoch, which was widely linked to and cross-posted in the US.

A key illustration of the argument was the open intimidation of Parliament by the then editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks (see the report by the Guardian's Nicholas Watt in September 2010). The Culture, Media and Sports Committee had in 2009 abandoned plans to force the then Sunday paper's Editor to appear before them after the Committee Chairman warned its members that the paper would "go for us". 

There are two scandals here. The most obvious, is the intimidation and suborning of parliament by a Murdoch editor. The much more important one is the impunity with which she acted and the fact that after it became known nothing was done. Where were the brave MPs who so vocally defended the sovereignty of parliament against the EU or the European Court of Justice, when its sovereignty was being bullied inside the gothic temple itself? Were they keeping their heads under a blanket in case they too were worked over? Why didn't the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition unite in their fury against such an attack on our democracy, instead of treating it as normal? 

The bigger scandal was not - and is not - the existence of Murdoch's threats but their appeasement by the political class, the acceptance by the authorities that such appeasement was routine, encouraged by the promotion of previous Editors of the News of the World to the highest positions inside Number 10. Don't blame Murdoch alone for taking advantage of such weakness, when the greater responsibility lies with those who permitted it - and then sought to benefit from their pact with his influence.

The story now takes a new turn. Tom Watson MP, an outstanding member of the current Committee, and the journalist Martin Hickman, have just launched their impressive book, Dial M for Murdoch, a clearly written account of the phone hacking scandal to date.

At a press conference this morning Watson spoke of Murdoch’s company exerting "a malign and corrupting influence on Britain’s public institutions" and quoted a former News International reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, saying that his paper had deliberately targeted MPs on the influential media select committee in 2009-10 as they wrote their report on hacking.

According to Watson, Thurlbeck said: "There was an edict came down from the editor and it was, find out every single thing you can about every single member: who was gay, who had affairs, anything we can use. Each reporter was given two members and there were six reporters" - according to Dan Sabbagh and Lisa O'Carroll who report on the press conference, adding that Watson called Murdoch's News Corp "toxic" and a "shadow state".

This allegation, relating to events before the hacking scandal blew wide open, is alarming enough. But I'm told that the exchanges which followed at the press conference were more so. Was the present committee under similar pressure, Watson was asked, and is there evidence of inappropriate links between committee members and News International?

Watson ducked the answer, saying it was something to ask other members of the Committee, who are now in the final stages of compiling a follow-up hacking report. But there are grounds for suspicion. For example, James Murdoch wrote to the committee last month to make the case that he should not be criticised. Natural enough, you might say, except that the letter reads like a response to the Committee – at a time when they had not yet asked him any further questions! Could he have known what they were pondering?

Here is a suggestion for the age of transparency over power and the media that was proclaimed by the Prime Minister when he told the Commons he would create the Leveson Inquiry and reveal his own dealings with media magnates. All the members of the Committee on Culture, Media and Sport should itemise their contacts with News International executives and representatives since, say, the general election.
 
Of course it can be proper for members of a committee dealing with the media to have contact with media organisations they are investigating. But given that this touches on the heart of power in Britain it is also proper that they should account to electors in full for those contacts.

Otherwise why should we not continue to believe that the pernicious conspiracy of permission and favours between the press and politicians, in particular the Murdochs and the governing party, is carrying on as before?

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