Political sketch: committee round two and beyond

Four dull, suited men take to the stage; eyes now turn to Leveson.

Those who had seen Murdoch the Movie were always going to be disappointed by the sequel. No Capo di tutti capi, no Consiglieri, and certainly no Momma with Attitude. Just a box, and someone called Pandora.

The House of Commons has played host to a number of memorable women in recent years: Maggie's friend Tina, Gordon's inamorata Prudence; but Pandora may turn out to be the best remembered of all. She comes in many guises and chose yesterday to be portrayed as four rather dull men in suits who share one thing in common: they all used to work for Rupert, his boy James, and a close friend called Rebekah.

The venue was Portcullis House and the same room where but a few short weeks ago the Murdochs and Co. appeared in front of MPs from the Culture, Media and Sport committee to deny all knowledge of the industrial scale phone-hacking going on at the News of the World; not to mention confusing facts like News International paying convicted criminal and former reporter Clive Goodman £240,000 to go away after his sentence, and continuing to pick up the legal bills of equally convicted non-employee Glenn Mulcaire.

It was these matters and others which brought former senior execs, ranging from the Head of HR to the Legal Manager of NI, in front of the committee to cast light on the darkness and end the confusion.

Basically, the MPs wanted one questioned answered: Was James Murdoch right when he said he had no knowledge that the scandal which has so far led to 15 arrests involved only Goodman. After three and a half hours of forensic questioning, MP Louise Mensch (chick-lit novelist Louise Bagshawe, as was) summed it up thus: "It's a clear as mud".

To be fair to the not-so-famous four, they seemed willing to give the right answers but you were never sure all the members of the committee were going to ask the right questions.

The first two out of the traps were the HR man, Daniel Cloke, and ex-Director of Legal Affairs, Jon Chapman, who both had obviously decided on the "no recollection" defence. Mr Chapman got a laugh out of admitting he came to be News International's legal man after cutting his teeth at Enron.

No one asked them why they had so recently quit the employment of the Murdochs, and when they left after an hour Pandora wondered why she had bothered to turn up.

But the one that the MPs wanted to let loose on was still to come. The wonderfully named Tom Crone was the News of the World's legal backstop for 20 years until he, too, found himself at home permanently, as the hacking and bribery scandal reached out to the highest echelons of the empire.

Mr Crone was accompanied by the only ex-Murdoch employee happy to be there: the last editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, who enjoys the pleasure of having been working abroad when his predecessors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were at the helm. Myler also had the pleasure of ten minutes notice when Brooks told News of the World employees the paper was closing, but she was staying.

Mr Crone was clearly not popular with the committee and spent most of the next two hours staring down at the table in front of him, as if praying it might morph into the Tardis and whip him off.

Instead, he sweated his way through 120 minutes revealing little gems such as Andy Coulson wanting to give Clive Goodman a job back at the News of the World after his prison sentence, and that he got his quarter of a million pound pay off out of "compassion"; a word clearly much bandied about at the News of the World. He admitted that giving £450,000 to Professional Football Association Chief Gordon Taylor was "large", but that it wasn't to buy his silence.

But had James Murdoch been right when he told the committee in July that he had never been told there was anyone other than Goodman involved in phonehacking? Not so, said Tom Crone. There was "clear evidence" that hacking went further, and that was why the Taylor case had to be settled:

We had to explain the case to Mr Murdoch and get his authority to settle, so clearly it was discussed.

An hour later, James Murdoch said he stood by his original testimony, which is "an accurate account of events". Meanwhile, down the road Lord Leveson made the first moves in his inquiry into just how bad things were in the Street of Shame. He invited interested parties to apply to be "core participants"; willing to provide evidence.

A host of newspapers immediately said they would; apart for the Mail and the Mirror. The Mail can't yet, because editor-in-chief Paul Dacre is still on holiday.The Daily Mirror said it would not be seeking to testify before the inquiry.

Pandora just smiled.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage