Tom Sutcliffe: MPs should beware the tempting limelight

Social Studies: The all-party composition of committees demands that Buggins gets a turn too

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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, 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'll 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.





Can we really make dating less blind?



It's inconceivable – in hindsight – that we wouldn't want Clare Wood to have known more about George Appleton before making the fatal decision to turn her online relationship into a real world one. So it's tempting to conclude that Clare's Law – the proposal that people should have access to background checks on potential partners – is a fine idea. Think about it for a moment though and it's clear that the practicalities are very tricky indeed. It couldn't be a gender-exclusive entitlement, available only to women. Which would mean that everyone's criminal record would be accessible to the curious. And it would seem a bit perverse to exclude offences – such as road rage or GBH – which offer evidence of violence that hasn't previously been aimed at a domestic partner.

It isn't obvious either how you might distinguish between genuine enquiries and fishing expeditions (would applicants have to supply a sequence of increasingly affectionate emails to prove their emotional connection?) You might well argue that those convicted of violent acts should permanently forfeit their right to conceal the fact – but unless you can make that argument convincingly this law wouldn't work. Given that Clare Wood made repeated complaints about Appleton before being murdered it might be more practical to direct our indignation and energies at persuading police forces to take such complaints far more seriously than they sometimes appear to.



Sometimes a new word is the mot juste

John Humphrys gave an irascible growl yesterday while talking to Rory Cellan-Jones about the BBC Technology Correspondent's plan to map 3G coverage, using an app that anyone could download to their mobile phone.

Cellan-Jones's offence was to have used the term "crowd-sourcing" and he immediately made penitent noises about his choice of words. Why though? It might not be the most beautiful phrase in the English language but it describes a novel social phenomenon and it does so with efficiency and clarity.

I don't suppose that many of Today's audiences hadn't heard the term before – and those that hadn't could easily work out what it meant, since neither word in the compound is arcane or obscure. Cellan-Jones should have challenged Humphrys to come up with a better way of saying it.







t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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