Why I voted against Murdoch

Condemning Rupert Murdoch did not diminish our committee's report.

The culmination of one of the most high-profile and prolonged select committee inquiries has rightly seen News International severely criticised for the widespread phone-hacking that took place and its handling of the aftermath.  The culture, media and sport select committee select committee has been looking at this issue for many years, going back to the Operation Motorman reports and the initial phone-hacking allegations.  Along with dogged campaigning from the Guardian, Mark Lewis, the legal representative of many of the victims, and others, we have kept this in the public eye and contributed to what will hopefully be the wholesale clearing up of the British press.  I think that without our inquiries, the Leveson inquiry, which I was pressing Cameron and Clegg to set up very early on, would have been less likely and the Metropolitan Police may not have reopened its investigation.

Our report is still very much at the beginning of the end of this story.  The Leveson process will make wide-ranging proposals on how to clean up journalism and, hopefully, thanks to our investigation and recommendations, this process will have better material and perspective from the News International aspect.  The police and potential judicial process also has to run its course.

We can, however, make some very clear conclusions already and our work should contribute to Leveson, inform Ofcom and, more immediately, prompt debate in Parliament.  It is clear that News International executives misled the committee and we must not lose sight of that.  But as the report concluded, “if at all times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications.”

Some have argued that going further and concluding that Murdoch is not "fit" to exercise the stewardship of a major international company detracted from the report and highlighted a committee split along party lines.  What would others have said if the votes had gone the other way with the coalition MPs on one side and Labour on the other?  That would just as surely have been portrayed as a split along party lines.

Ever since the Murdochs appeared before the committee, the narrative of our inquiry, especially in the public’s view, has been on their behaviour; I don’t think commenting on their competence detracts from the very serious issue of the other executives clearly misleading Parliament.  Unlike the preconceived ideas others may have had in approaching this inquiry, I have been very careful to read the volumes of evidence we have gathered before taking decisions on which way to go in the final report.  As a whole, the amendments weren’t as split along party lines as has been portrayed. For example, only two Conservatives voted against the conclusion that James Murdoch’s competence should be called into question.

What is ultimately most important is for the media to never experience such a scandal again.  A result of this entire process must be a press that is trusted by the public and is independently regulated.  The Press Complaints Commission clearly had failings, one of which was the number of editors on its board; consequently I referred to it in the House as being as useful as a fishnet condom.  A new body that is free from the influence of editors, executives and politicians must be far more rigorous in pursuing complaints and potential wrongdoing.  That said, one benefit I hope this whole process will have is that the press will never again be tempted to resort to such illegal measures in order to make a quick profit.

Adrian Sanders is the Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay and a member of the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee.

The committe on phone-hacking concluded that Rupert Murdoch was not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company. Photograph: Getty Images.

Adrian Sanders is the Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.