Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wanted: P45 for Mrs Brooks

I spent probably too much of yesterday following PMQs, David Cameron's statement on the phone hacking enquiry and the Hacked Off Campaign's press conference outside 10 Downing Street.

By the end of the day, we had been assured of a wide ranging judge led enquiry, and News International had withdrawn their bid for BSkyB. However, what I can't understand is why Rebekah Brooks still has a job. She was in a very powerful position at a time when, as we know now, heartless, dishonest, unethical things were not just happening but hard wired into the organisational culture. And she claims to have been completely ignorant of it.

Scotland's transport minister Stewart Stevenson resigned last year for shortcomings in the response to particularly severe weather. At the time I felt a bit sorry for him, to be honest and I certainly didn't think he should have to go. Compare and contrast with Mrs Brooks not just clinging on, but, nauseatingly, being feted by the Murdochs.  I asked on Twitter why she hadn't been handed her P45 and Olly Grender said that she's being kept in place as padding:
 because she is the buffer zone, once she goes the next in the firing line is James Murdoch
Her continued presence at News International is nothing more than a two fingered salute to all those who had their privacy invaded.

And on to the events of the rest of the day in a bit more detail.....................

PMQs was a strange affair. Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames kicked off proceedings with a well phrased question:
Secretly deleting voicemails left for a missing teenager, buying the silence of public figures who would incriminate your business, and publishing the confidential medical details of a disabled child who just happens to have a famous father: I ask the Prime Minister—are any of these the actions of a fit and proper person?
 Cameron's answer was not quite as high quality - but Duncan received praise on Twitter from Politics Home's Paul Waugh who described him as "one to watch."

There then followed an awkwardly choreographed series of exchanges between David Cameron and Ed Miliband in which they tried to outdo each other condemnation of News International, while both knowing fine they and most of their front benches, unlike the Liberal Democrats, had until very recently worshipped at their altar.

Ed Miliband had a good go at Cameron on Andy Coulson. Now, Cameron has absolutely no defence on his decision to hire him, and I think he knows it. He was well and truly warned, but pressed on regardless. Trouble with Miliband's line is that he's hired Tom Baldwin, a former Times journalist about whom questions are being raised.

Despite the new found political consensus on the way forward, it was clear that Tory and Labour MPs were more interested in knocking lumps out of each other than actually discussing the issues.

Liberal Democrat MPs Malcolm Bruce and David Ward brought some sensible questions into the febrile atmosphere - Malcolm on sign language trials and David on ridiculously high car insurance premiums for young people.

I was, however, gutted that nobody asked about the implications of the demise of the Immigration Advisory Service that I wrote about the other day.

After PMQs, Cameron made his statement on the enquiry and took some much more sensible questions from all sides of the House. I wish people could behave like this during the weekly pantomime. I do worry that John Bercow is going to spontaneously combust with rage as he tries to get people to behave themselves.

Simon Hughes asked:

I thank the Prime Minister for his decisive announcement and for the work that he and the Deputy Prime Minister have done to ensure that the concerns that my colleagues have been expressing for 17 years, and the calls for an inquiry that we have been making for two years, have at last been accepted.
Will the inquiry look into the Information Commissioner’s reports of 2006, and why his confirmation that 31 media titles and 305 journalists were involved in illegal activities in relation to personal information were not the subject of implementation of recommendations by the Labour party in government, whose leadership continued, even as late as last December, to accuse my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary of being too critical of Murdoch?
Credit where it's due, Cameron took this one on the chin, saying his opposition was blame too.

 To be fair to my right hon. Friend, the issue of the Information Commissioner’s reports—particularly the two reports he mentions—really is a rebuke not just to the previous Government but to the then Opposition. We too should have made more of those reports, which included some very important detail about what was going wrong in data handling, data theft and the rest of it. We must ensure that the inquiry asks the question, “Why were they ignored, and what are we going to do about it now?”

I was particularly pleased to see Jo Swinson tackle the issue of publication of private details about children, even if it was legal to do so. I had earlier been horrified to see the front page of yesterday's Sun, which ripped Gordon Brown to shreds, accusing him of smearing them. I can only imagine how horrendous it must have been for Sarah and Gordon Brown to get a call from Rebekah Brooks saying she knew that Fraser had Cystic Fibrosis and they were going to publish.We already know that ethics, compassion and decency were in short supply, but how cruel is it to publish details when parents are trying to come to terms with a diagnosis and its implication? Jo asked:

 Even if private medical details are obtained without breaking the law, it does not mean that it is right to publish them, especially when they relate to a child and no possible public interest case can be made. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the inquiry will consider and recommend what meaningful sanctions can be imposed in cases where media outlets might not have acted against the law but have certainly acted against common standards of decency and ethics?

Cameron showed a fair bit of understanding in his answer on that point:
we must still have people at the top of newspapers and media organisations who take responsibility and recognise that it is not right to reveal that someone is pregnant, for instance, when there is no certainty that they will keep that baby. 
 Don Foster raised the issue of whether News International were a "fit and proper person" to hold its current 39% of BSkyB, Tessa Munt wanted an assurance that police officers wouldn't receive taxpayer funded pensions if they were found to be corrupt and Julian Huppert asked about whether Cameron would take Hacked Off's concerns on board.

As if that wasn't excitement enough, we then had the announcement that News Corp was abandoning its attempt to buy BSkyB. Ed Miliband was quick to hail this as a victory for the British people. I felt that was hopelessly naive. All the Murdochs care about is saving their own financial skin. I suspect they took the decision because they wanted to find the quickest way of accessing BSkyB's profits - which will involve getting rid of their newspapers.

And just as I was about to pick myself up off the sofa, former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, now with the Hacked Off Campaign, appeared outside Downing Street with former mayoral candidate and hacking victim Brian Paddick and the Dowler family to hold a press conference. I was particularly touched to later read our Alistair Carmichael's Facebook status:
One of the great things about my job is the people I get to meet. From The Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton I have met some truly remarkable people. Today was one of the best in this regard when I looked after the family of Milly Dowler for a short time. I have never met such strong, graceful and inspiring people.I shall never forget them.
I came over a bit tearful as Evan Harris paid tribute to the Dowlers' efforts, saying that they had been instrumental in getting the terms of reference of the enquiry widened. Losing a child is bad enough but Mrs Dowler's comments the other day that the deletion of the voicemail messages gave her hope just shows how damaging, cruel and distressing the News of the World's actions were.

It was a dramatic day - but is only the start of a process which will hopefully see the inter-relationships between Britain's powerful vested interests properly tackled. This will be the work of years - and it's really important that public anger does not disperse and keeps driving through real, meaningful and lasting change.

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