What use is a final report when its word is not final?
That’s the riddle that managers, law enforcers and media groups were posed by today’s publication of News International and Phone-hacking – the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s long-awaited assessment of the saga that has invaded innocent lives, closed down a newspaper and consumed the diaries of key Parliamentary players.
(It’s crucial to note my use of the word “assessment”, rather than “verdict”. That becomes very important a little further down…)
One major point of interest with Commons committees is that they are not bound by an ethos that echoes the Cabinet code of collective responsibility. MPs who become members of these specialist clans – the nearest thing we have to “government by experts” – are free to state their own views on conclusions to matters they have investigated, almost as though they had nothing to do with drawing those conclusions in the first place.
On the evidence of how today’s phone-hacking report was presented, that approach is a total disaster – and has led to a publication that, in spirit, is anything but unequivocal on serious management issues.
The report’s confused soul is revealed in its minutes from page 100 onwards, in which the voting patterns behind the text’s compilation are revealed – much like the jaunty plumbing behind the facade of a posh, grace-and-favour flat. Each and every edit in Committee reports must be voted on, and amendments are only carried to the final text by majority votes. Then, the final text itself is voted upon, to demonstrate the extent of agreement on its conclusions. In the case of the phone-hacking report, all four Tory members eligible to vote on the document’s final draft (John Whittingdale, as chair, was exempt) voted against it. The report was only rubber-stamped by a majority Aye vote from a flank of six Labour and Lib Dem MPs.
Another point of interest with Commons committees is that, unlike regulators – such as Ofcom – they have no legal remit or judicial clout. This is why they can only make assessments, rather than issue formal verdicts – but the language in which their reports are drawn up is so close to legalese as to make few odds.
In today’s press conference to unveil the report, at which the entire Culture, Media and Sport clan appeared, all of the committee system’s vices – and precious few of its virtues – were on display.
Us and them
The report shows that all Committee members were happy to endorse the powerful text of Section 215, which states: “… the truth, we believe, is that by spring 2011, because of the civil actions [by phone-hacking victims], the company finally realised that its containment approach had failed, and that a ‘one rogue reporter’ – or even ‘two rogue journalists’ – stance no longer had any shred of credibility … Even if there were a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture at News International, the whole affair demonstrates huge failings of corporate governance at the company and its parent, News Corporation.”
However, according to the press-conference statement by Labour’s Tom Watson, nothing from Section 216 – the passage immediately after the above – to Section 229 was palatable to any of the Committee’s Tory members. And Section 229 is the report’s concluding paragraph. You know: the one that made all the headlines. The one that reads:
“On the basis of the facts and evidence before the Committee, we conclude that, if at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications. This culture, we consider, permeated from the top throughout the organisation and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International. We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.”
So the “we conclude” is not really we conclude after all. It is – to some on the Committee – very much a case of “they conclude”.
Flotsam and jetsam
For further confusion, look no further than Louise Mensch. In her statement, delivered after Watson’s, the Corby Tory insisted that the Conservative members had refused to endorse the report merely on the strength of Section 29’s final sentence. So, Tom is saying one thing about the lack of Conservative support, and Mensch is saying another: the Committee is even plagued with infighting over the ways in which its members have disagreed.
It was left to Damian Collins to explain that the Tory members snubbed Section 29 because they felt it was up to Ofcom to form a legal position on the Murdochs’ fitness to run media groups – not the Committee, which has no legal remit. But this only threw up a series of other questions:
Isn’t it funny how that issue was divided along party lines when it appears to be non-partisan and procedural?
Shouldn’t every Commons committee agree at the outset of a report not to stray too far into legal territory, as a means of ensuring credible, unanimous outcomes?
Why isn’t there guidance in place that instructs MPs on how far they can go into legalistic views before key points of law must be referred to regulators or police?
For the anti-Murdoch camp, the lack of unanimity in the report in one sense doesn’t matter: the “magic bullet” of Section 29 made the headlines – as final paragraphs in official reports are wont to do – and Murdoch’s opponents have claimed their scalp.
But in another sense, it matters enormously. Like a receding tide, those headlines will die down, leaving the flotsam and jetsam of internal disagreements, party-political point scoring, and confusion over the committee system’s relationship with the law strewn all over the beach.
Thanks to the bungled handling of this report, we are no closer to a definitive view on Rupert Murdoch’s management failings than we were yesterday – and may even have taken a step backwards.