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Asking questions of Rebekah

What can and cannot be said.

Rebekah Brooks is expected to attend the DCMS Select Committee tomorrow, fresh from her arrest and lengthy questioning by the Metropolitan Police. As she sits there, there will be nothing which can stop her being asked any question by any MP on the committee, however prejudicial or incriminating the question is in its assumptions. There will also be nothing to stop any MP making any aside about her conduct, however defamatory or - indeed - inaccurate. She will just have to sit and take it. There is nothing legally she would be able to do to stop them.

More interesting is what she can say in reply. On one hand, there is the contention that whatever she says will be protected absolutely by privilege. She can say whatever she likes, and be safe from suit or prosecution in respect of those words. As with a great deal of our "constitutional law" the limits of such a supposed right are not exactly marked; but it is likely she can speak with legal safety should she really want to do so. Indeed, it may well be that she decides to answer the questions fully, presumably repeating anything and everything she has also said to the Metropolitan Police.

 

However, it may not be in her interests to say things which would otherwise be prejudicial to any defence which she may wish to use in the event of prosecution. She certainly may not want to incriminate herself. For, although there may be a formal barrier of privilege to prevent the use of those words as part of any prosecution or civil claim, any such words could well inform practical litigation decisions and she will be challenged to repeat those words outside of Parliament. Any attempt to rely on privilege will quickly become artificial.

That is why we should not be surprised if, at least for many questions, Rebekah Brooks does not assist parliamentarians with their enquiries. Like anyone arrested and bailed, she is entitled to due process. There is no reason why her general rights in this regard should be circumvented just because she has been summoned by a select committee. The issue would then be what Parliament could do with any refusal to answer certain questions? One hopes that they would do nothing, whatever the heady talk of contempt of Parliament and imprisoning her in the Tower. The rights and liberties of the subject are always important, even when that subject is Rebekah Brooks.

Addendum

According to reports, the lawyer for Rebekah Brooks has now said:

The position of Rebekah Brooks can be simply stated. She is not guilty of any criminal offence. The position of the Metropolitan Police is less easy to understand. Despite arresting her yesterday and conducting an interview process lasting 9 hours, they put no allegations to her, and showed her no documents connecting her with any crime. They will in due course have to give an account of their actions, and in particular their decision to arrest her, with the enormous reputational damage that this has involved.

In the meantime, Mrs Brooks has an appointment with the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee tomorrow. She remains willing to attend and to answer questions. It is a matter for Parliament to decide what issues to put to her and whether her appointment should place at a later date.

Second addendum

The PR company Bell Pottinger has confirmed that Rebekah Brooks has instructed veteran white-collar defence lawyer Stephen Parkinson of Kingsley Napley. Parkinson's profile details his extensive work as a prosecutor and as a defence solicitor in many high-profile cases. The combination of Bell Pottinger and the highly regarded Kingsley Napley means that Brooks has a strong (and expensive) joint litigation and PR strategy in place.

Bell Pottinger also confirmed that the express reference to her suffering "enormous reputational damage" was deliberate. It remains to be seen if this admission has any adverse effect in limiting her ability to (threaten to) sue anyone other than the police for libel, as it may provide a so-called "Jameel" abuse of process defence (where a claim can be struck out because the claimed damage does not go substantially further than the reputation which can otherwise be shown or is admitted).

Third addendum

The House of Commons publishes a guide for those giving evidence to select committees (pdf). In this guide the House states that the absolute privilege exists in respect of evidence given to a select committee "provided that it is formally accepted as such by the Committee".

There is also this House of Commons paper (pdf) on what constitutes "contempt of Parliament". In essence, any refusal to answer questions would probably have to be referred to the Standards and Privileges committee (or the whole House) before "contempt of Parliament" proceedings could commence: if so, the DCMS select committee cannot compel answers there and then at the hearing.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.