Archie Bland: MPs take too much pleasure in pillorying wrongdoers

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The Independent Online

The last recorded use of the stocks in England was in Newbury, in 1872. One Mark Tuck – described by a local historian as an "incorrigible bacchanalian" – was strapped in for a four-hour stint to think about his boozing. "Mark was surrounded the whole time by a crowd of jeering juveniles," the historian explains, "to whom the process was a novelty." When it came to an end, "he almost overturned an old woman in his haste to escape".

That was 140 years ago. Yesterday in Westminster, we saw yet another example of what's fast becoming the modern-day equivalent: the high-flyer's appearance before a select committee. While the particulars are a little different – Nick Buckles, the chief executive of G4S, is not being roasted for drinking in public, but for his company's lamentable failure to fulfil its Olympic deal – there can be little question that his interlocutors took roughly the same approach as the jeering juveniles that his 19th-century predecessor had to put up with.

There's no doubt that the rise of the select committee as a mechanism of accountability is a good thing. Story after story has featured a repentant executive's self-flagellation in front of a group of stern-looking MPs. That process ought to inform better legislation, and reassure the public that these people, whether phone hackers or bad bankers, won't get away with it.

Lately, though, MPs have been relishing their duty a little too much. You saw it with Bob Diamond, where the panellists were falling over themselves to land the most gratuitously abusive blow. From John Mann's offer to tattoo Barclays' founding principles on his knuckles, to John Thurso's weirdly aggressive claim that he resembled Geoffrey Boycott, much of it felt more like an effort to get on the news than to get at the truth.

We got the same kind of thing on the media committee, and yesterday, the adorably-named Mr Buckles became the latest victim. Labour's David Winnick led the charge. "It's a humiliating shambles for the company," Winnick said. "Yes or no?" And Buckles, because the established etiquette of these things dictates that nothing but utter prostration will suffice, replied: "I cannot disagree with you." He might as well have been pelted with a tomato.

This sort of thing doesn't feel like it's eliciting any useful truth. It feels like bullying, carried out by a group less trusted by the public than anyone else in the country. We abandoned the stocks because they were as demeaning for the rest of us as they were for the victims. We shouldn't abandon select committees, but maybe our MPs should bear this in mind. And if they won't, they should certainly stop complaining about Jeremy Paxman.