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

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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