Donald Macintyre's Sketch: MPs fail to land punches in trial of Hacked Off

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If Monday’s Commons debate was post-Leveson showdown lite, today’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing was the real thing. We had Max Mosley, who famously won a 2008 court action against the (late) News of the World after it turned over his private life. And we had at least three Tory MPs who could barely contain their fury at Hacked Off’s starring role in the Ed Miliband-hosted talks which secured the cross-party regulation deal with David Cameron.

True, the 72-year-old Mosley raised eyebrows when he said he was “just an ordinary member of the public”. Philip Davies, a self-confessed advocate of self-regulation who voted against the deal on Monday night, accused him of not being “straight”. “You are not here to represent a free press… You’re here representing the Hugh Grants of the world.”

But Mosley, who has given financial help to hacking victims, said Davies had “absolutely no right” to say that. “Everything that’s happened to me has happened. My interest is to see that it doesn’t happen to other people, and that if it does happen they can afford the costs of the proceedings I brought. Don’t say I’m not straight.”

This set the tone for what Davies and his colleagues appeared anxious to turn into the Trial of Hacked Off. Tory MP Conor Burns conducted a vigorous cross-examination on “why did you need to be in the room eating pizza with Ed Miliband doing a deal to change the system of press regulation in this country?” (“Nobody offered us pizza,” protested Hacked Off director Brian Cathcart).

The interrogators had two problems, one of which was the witnesses’ robustness. Mr Tomlinson is the kind of QC who has the confidence to say (when asked by Tory MP Angie Bray about an ennobled fellow silk’s criticism of the exemplary damages to which newspapers who opt out of the new system could be subjected): “I have the greatest respect for David Pannick... but on this point he is just wrong.”

The Tory trio were also getting angry with the wrong people. A frustrated Burns asked if David Cameron’s “ambassador” Oliver Letwin had been “surprised” to find Hacked Off sitting in the room. No. The unspoken sub-text of the questioning was “Why the hell not?”, but that would have required a politically much more awkward interrogation of Letwin, not to mention the Prime Minister.

Earlier, opening a startling second front, Labour MP Jim Sheridan said: “What concerns me is the parasitical elements within the press who abuse their position in here… hiding behind their pen and calling people names… I don’t understand why they are allowed to come into this place and behave in the way that they do.”

Some seasoned Westminster observers suggested he was referring to sketch writers.