MPs should beware the limelight

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The Independent Online

I do hope this afternoon's meeting of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is an undramatic affair, though obviously I'm not pinning a lot on those hopes. Even in ordinary times, the appearance of Rupert Murdoch in front of a parliamentary committee would make it a standing room-only affair.

But in the current circumstances, the matinee performance at Portcullis House may well result in crowd-crush fatalities unless access is carefully controlled.

And the audience at home is likely to be substantial, too – giving those who grind their lives away in the engine rooms of government a brief but heady taste of A-deck glamour. Which is what I'm worried about really. I don't want this afternoon's session to be dull, because I'm any less avid for sensation than anyone else. And I don't want it to be dull because lawyers on both sides have muffled the possibility of penetrating questions and candid answers. I want it to be dull because there are few things as bad for MPs' characters as an unaccustomed spotlight. At least one man present deserves a bit of limelight – Tom Watson, above, who began worrying at a tiny exposed nub of bone years ago and eventually helped tug an entire skeleton into the light.

Given his detailed knowledge of the affair – and the scorn poured on him at various times in the past few years – there would be a certain logic if his fellow committee members took a vow of silence and left it to him exclusively.

But that sadly is very unlikely. The all-party composition of committees demands that Buggins gets a turn too – and Buggins, whoever he or she is, may find the temptation to showcase their own brilliance or moral probity irresistible. Or to subtly cut whoever preceded Buggins down in size a bit. For all its merits, that's one of the problems with the committee system; it's an ensemble performance in which no one present really wants just a supporting role. It makes tenacity in a promising line of questioning far harder to achieve. And that defect is only likely to be exacerbated when the session in question is a sell-out melodrama about the resurgent power of Parliament. It's hard to imagine that there will be an MP there who hasn't fantasised about their overnight reviews.

John Whittingdale, the committee chairman, promised over the weekend that they wouldn't be a "lynch mob". One can only hope so, though in previous sittings the committee as a whole (not all its members are guilty of grandstanding) has occasionally been reminiscent of those jubilant crowds you saw after the fall of Baghdad; every now and then an excited figure dashing forward to whack the statue of Saddam over the head with a sandal. Perhaps this afternoon the sense of occasion will sober them all up – and persuade them to abandon even the faintest whiff of histrionics. I've got my fingers crossed. They need to remember that they're not Columbo, turning with a lethal and deceptively innocuous afterthought.

And they're not Atticus Finch, lone crusaders for truth against embedded prejudice.

They're public servants, whose best possible service will be to ensure that the spotlight – bright and unforgiving – never leaves those in the seats opposite them.

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