Talking Politics

How to punish Murdoch’s misleading cronies

There's a lot of confusion over how the phone-hacking villains at News International can be punished. But it's really very simple: they must be humiliated in the Commons bear-pit.

MPs on the culture, media and sport committee were sure of one thing and utterly uncertain about another. Yes, they were convinced that News International's Les Hinton, Colin Myler and Tom Crone had misled parliament. No, they didn't have the foggiest what that meant. We are in somewhat uncharted waters, they quavered. Let the rest of the Commons deal with it.

In fact the position isn't that complicated. Calls for contempt of parliament to be made a criminal offence are missing the point that parliament is already capable of punishing any recalcitrant individual it judges to have been guilty of misdeeds. By misleading MPs on the media committee, Myler, Crone and Hinton have all committed contempts of parliament.

There's no doubt that is the case. So if the Commons accepts this and passes a motion accordingly, they can be punished. This is where the complication sets in. Paul Farrelly, one of the leading Labour MPs on the committee, told me yesterday: "You can't lock them up in the Tower, human rights lawyers would have a field day.

"You can't have their eyes pecked out by ravens at the Tower of London, so it's really an issue for select committees and parliament to decide how they might want to reform the system given this most blatant case of people coming and not telling us the truth."

This punishment can take any number of forms. Among the more arcane are imprisonment or imposing a fine - but these haven't happened since 1880 and 1666 respectively. Better hold fire on those ones. The best answer is to implement a measure which last took place in 1957 - relatively recently, in constitutional terms.

January 24th 1957, in fact, was the last time a member of the public was summoned to the bar of the Commons. The poor soul facing the wrath of parliament was Sir John Junor of the Sunday Express, who had impugned the reputation of MPs over the petrol allowance given to political parties at the time. Reading the Hansard transcript of his brush with MPs makes for chilling reading. The Speaker at the time, William Morrison, did not hold back:

You did not seek, so the committee have found, to establish the truth of the article, nor did you appear willing to admit its obvious implications. Although given every opportunity to express your regret, you made what the Committee were only able to regard as an entirely inadequate apology.

After giving Junor a chance to speak the newspaper editor grovelled - it's the only way to describe it:

I do regret, deeply and sincerely, that the manner in which I expressed myself should have been such as to be a contempt of this House. I have nothing more to say. I now leave myself in the hands of this House.

After chewing the thing over for a few minutes, the leader of the House Rab Butler decided to let him off any further punishment. He had been humiliated enough.

This is a punishment which can very easily be doled out to the News International bosses. There is no need for a change of the rules. Just because something doesn't happen every day - or even decades - doesn't mean a fresh response needs to be worked out from scratch.

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