Inquiry committee split over Murdoch's fitness to run News Corp01/05/2012 - 16:32:53
The most damning conclusion of the media select committee report into phone hacking – that Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person” to run a major company - was not backed by any of its Tory members.
Detailed minutes of the battle to agree a final text lay bare a number of splits, mainly along party lines, over a series of proposed changes directly attacking the media mogul and son James.
Some Conservatives expressed concern that the failure to secure unanimous approval of the report would lessen its impact and accused Labour MPs of going beyond the available evidence.
And there was no effort to disguise the serious disagreement at a press conference to discuss the findings as MPs directed almost as many barbs at each other as at those their report condemned.
There was much clearer agreement among the 11-member group notably over the finding that three former senior executives – Les Hinton, Colin Myler and Tom Crone – misled the committee.
But the Conservative members of the committee refused to endorse a series of amendments tabled by Labour members Tom Watson and Paul Farrelly that levelled accusations directly at the Murdochs.
On two key passages the committee split by six votes to four – with the five Labour MPs and the sole Liberal Democrat member Adrian Sanders forcing through the changes.
The Tory chair of the committee, John Whittingdale, who holds a casting vote, did not take part in any of the divisions but clearly hinted that he would have sided with party colleagues.
One of the changes – inserted by Mr Farrelly – struck out the originally drafted line that the committee was “inclined to accept” James Murdoch had not seen the pivotal “for Neville” email.
The final report said the committee “cannot come to a definitive conclusion one way or the other” but believed the then News International chairman subsequently guilty of “wilful ignorance”.
A bid by Tory Damian Collins to replace it with a statement that there was “no conclusive evidence that James Murdoch saw the ’for Neville’ email or that he understood its wider significance” was rejected by the same Labour/Lib Dem majority vote.
The other, promoted by prominent Rupert Murdoch critic and hacking campaigner Mr Watson, contained the stark “not a fit person” conclusion about the veteran newspaper proprietor.
He had, it said, “turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications” – symptomatic of a “lack of effective corporate governance”.
The two sides came close to agreement on one criticism of the Murdochs – that it was “simply astonishing” they failed to realise that hacking went wider than one “rogue reporter” until December 2010.
All but one member of the committee – Tory Therese Coffey – voted to accept the wording. She explained later that she felt it was too open to interpretations that she did not endorse.
As a result of their failure to block the changes, the Tories also felt unable to vote for the report as a whole which was, itself, carried by the same 6-4 majority.
Lining up to discuss the report – Mr Watson issued a direct rebuke to MPs who “did not feel sufficiently convinced or confident to hold the most powerful to account”.
He was met with a barrage of retorts from Tory counterparts however who accused him of getting “carried away” and making judgments beyond what the committee’s evidence allowed.
One Tory Philip Davies said he believed “very clearly” that they had heard nothing to suggest Mr Murdoch was not a “fit and proper” person – dismissing it as a “completely ludicrous” conclusion.
“Many people may conclude that some people’s conclusions were written before any of the evidence was ever heard, and I think that is very sad,” he said.
Another accused him of wrongly attempting to apply what should be a specific legal test applied by regulator Ofcom without the necessary facts.
Critics suggested Mr Watson should have accepted only what could be agreed unanimously to avoid undermining the report’s findings – making his views known in a separate statement.
Many commentators though saw his insistence on pushing the amendments through as a highly political move to portray the Conservatives as defenders of Mr Murdoch.
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