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.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.