MPs ban TV and radio from sleaze hearings

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The Independent Online
Television and radio coverage is expected to be barred by the committee investigating Commons sleaze allegations. The power to order a ban was endorsed by the Commons last year, because the Government feared bulletins could magnify the impact of hearings on the public.

Government whips believe that while they cannot exclude the press from the most dramatic hearings, television and sound broadcasts would risk turning proceedings into a media "circus". The Tory majority on the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee - chaired by the Cabinet minister Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons - will be used to ensure cameras and microphones are kept out.

The ban will cover potentially explosive evidence to be taken over the next few weeks by the committee from David Willetts, a Treasury minister and former whip who is alleged to have improperly intervened to defuse an earlier Commons inquiry into claims that the Tory MP Neil Hamilton received cash from Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods.

But broadcasters could also be barred from hearings that could eventually be staged into the report, being prepared by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, into allegations against Mr Hamilton. The drama of Commons sleaze hearings is certain to be increased by the court- like proceedings, with power to take evidence on oath and the opportunity for those against whom allegations have been made to be accompanied by an adviser, probably a leading barrister.

Yesterday a parliamentary source said that while powers had been taken to allow a broadcasting ban, no decision had been taken on its application to the Willetts hearings - the first big test of the post-Nolan clean- up. However, a report endorsed by MPs last year said: "In the special circumstances of the proposed new committee [Standards and Privileges] there is a case for allowing it a discretion to preclude the televising or sound broadcasting of particular hearings held in public ...

"It could only be justified in relation to the new committee on the grounds that the broadcasting of the examination of witnesses - particularly in the form of brief and unrepresentative extracts on news programmes - would risk giving wide and immediate publicity, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, to serious allegations against individual members (and others). These might subsequently prove to be wholly unfounded but the manner of their publication would allow no effective remedy."

But last year's report said: "The House has no power, in the absence of legislation akin to the Contempt of Court Act, to control or restrict the reporting by the press of proceedings to which they have been admitted."

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