Thursday, 7 July 2011

A Good Day for Democracy

Yesterday was (another) bad day for Rupert Murdoch and News International but it was a good one for democracy.

Speaker John Bercow (who is rapidly becoming a serious contender for my Man of the Year) has played a blinder in the last few days. In agreeing to an emergency debate on phone-hacking he has placed the House of Commons at the centre of the phone-hacking crisis, which is exactly where it should be.

The previous speaker (Gorbals Mick) would never have dared get on the wrong side of the previous Labour Government in agreeing to a debate, but Bercow has proved he is his own man (one suspects Cameron and the Whips Office are privately furious with him).

I was fortunate enough to be in the car on the way back from a client meeting and able to listen to a packed House during one of its finest hours for many a year. Tom Watson (who for me had the line of the day “News International had entered the criminal underworld”), John Whittingdale, Bob Stewart, Alan Johnson, Nicholas Soames, Yvette Cooper, Simon Hughes and Menzies Campbell all spoke well, eloquently and without shrillness. For the Government, Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, made a series of telling points.

For me the big loser was Cameron (it was a good day as well for Ed Miliband at PMQs which even the Daily Telegraph conceded!). Yes the Prime Minister agreed to a Public Inquiry (perhaps even two) but I think he is still behind the curve on this one (and Peter Oborne explains why in today's Telegraph). My concern when he announced an Inquiry was the potential for it to be very narrow in its terms of reference and without teeth. Lo and behold this morning the Independent reports that the PM and Clegg are at loggerheads over whether a judge should take charge of one or both - Clegg wants the judiciary involved, the PM doesn’t.

Frankly, any Inquiry needs teeth and that means a Judge in charge of it who is able to sanction those who refuse to attend (a tried and tested News International tactic) and then cross-examine under oath with all the consequences that entails.

This whole saga now looks as if it could be the high watermark for Rupert Murdoch’s influence on British public life, just as MPs expenses proved a catalyst for the House of Commons. The crucial issue now is how the Government will wriggle out of its commitment to let News International buy BskyB (and it’s going to have to however much it protests!).

Keep watching!


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