Watson's outburst exposes split within hacking committee
Labour MP challenges chairman's insistence that no more witnesses will be summoned
Saturday 12 November 2011
Divisions, playing to the gallery, the failure to hunt as a pack, and a lack of co-ordinated questioning damaged the efforts of the parliamentary committee that has spent years probing the phone-hacking scandal, according to committee chair John Whittingdale.
His committee faces criticism that it failed to deliver definitive evidence on who inside News International was ultimately responsible for the criminal culture in the tabloid's newsroom. Speaking privately after James Murdoch had appeared before the media committee for the second time, Mr Whittingdale suggested he doesn't see eye-to-eye with the most high-profile of his colleagues, Labour MP Tom Watson.
He criticised the deputy chair of the Labour Party for labelling Mr Murdoch as "the first Mafia boss in history who didn't know he was running a criminal enterprise".
The Independent understands the committee is preparing a fast-tracked publication of attendance records, which will show Mr Watson focusing on the hacking inquiry and less on probes into football and gambling.
Mr Whittingdale yesterday said his committee would stop taking testimony. But Mr Watson said: "I know the chairman has said there won't be any more witnesses – but we work as a team and the committee has yet to decide on our next step. James Murdoch's evidence yesterday, in relation to Tom Crone [News International former legal manager] and Colin Myler [the former News of the World editor], was new. And I believe we should give both the opportunity to return again before us, if they want to."
At times the absence of co-ordinated questioning of Mr Murdoch appeared to separate the committee's inquisitors into for-and-against Murdoch factions. Mr Watson alleged "omerta" at News International – a business group bound by coded secrecy – while Paul Farrelly referred to a Banquo-like spirit of Rupert Murdoch, saying he had a "growly Australian accent rattling around in his head".
Both the men are Labour MPs.
Tory MP, Louise Mensch, generously warned Mr Murdoch that she would have to leave early to pick up her children from school. He wished her "good luck". She ended her questioning by wishing the News Corp boss "luck" in pursuing the "ethical review" of his company.
Mr Whittingdale made no reference to Mrs Mensch, Mr Farrelly or others in his assessment of the James Murdoch session. Focused on Mr Watson, Mr Whittingdale accused his colleague of failing to give prior notice of new revelations to be incorporated into his line of questioning.
Mr Watson had revealed that a former Army Intelligence officer, Ian Hurst, and 16 of his associates were victims of computer hacking.
He also revealed that ex-News International boss Rebekah Brooks told Tony Blair that Mr Watson was "mad" and urged the ex-prime minister to "call this man off". The divisions do not auger well for the committee's report on phone hacking which will be delivered in next year.
The lack of a consensus on where the buck should stop inside News International is potentially damaging for both the authority of the report and for Mr Whittingdale's leadership of the high-profile parliamentary committee.
MPs Divided: The Key Players
The wise owl of the culture committee. But his neutrality is seen as compromised by his closeness to Les Hinton, once Rupert Murdoch's closest confidant. Dined with Rebekah Brooks – but denies any friendship.
The committee's attack dog. His solo sorties, based on years of extensive research, have been ruthless and headline grabbing. Has been rewarded with a seat in Labour's Shadow Cabinet.
The former chic-lit author had surprised many by being aggressive in some sessions. But she showed her kinder side when wishing "luck" to James Murdoch. Priority this week: leaving early to pick up the kids.
Perhaps distracted by the "growly Australian voice" he kept hearing in his head, the Labour MP seemed to lose track of the meaning of the words "final question". He used the phrase three times.
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