Political sketch: No respect for the Murdoch family

James Murdoch's second stint in front of the Culture committee.

His face bore the look of someone who had sat down suddenly on something unexpected and possibly sharp. His voice seemed only to confirm this.

We were to discover later that this was not James Murdoch in front of us but a Mafia boss. Unfortunately he sounded more like Kermit than Michael Corleone. This was going to be it .The unmasking of the man who would be king when Rupert finally moves on to his take-over of the celestial heights.

As befits the next ruler of the universe - and someone who intends to keep his personal contact with Plod of the Yard at some distance - Murdoch minor arrived for his latest confrontation with the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons with a phalanx of minders and lawyers.

Each of them, including James, had been issued with a poppy, leaving some of the Americans on the team with the slightly nervous look of those who were not sure if they had been asked to pin a target to their lapels.

James was here to answer charges that he had only been adjacent to the truth on his last visit to Westminster, best remembered for his dad getting a pie in the face and his step-mum displaying a formidable left hook.

But he was family-less as he tried yet again to prove he was the Diggers true son and heir, worthy of continuing to run the global enterprise that is News Group/International/Murdoch/Millions. The trouble with the plan to get him was that it depended on the members of the Committee who apparently have a quaint system of never agreeing in advance who is going to ask what.

Their main man was always going to be Labour MP Tom Watson who took on the Empire even when it was still popular and has since carved out a career on the back of his bravery. So you knew it was going to be serious when Tom Watson let it be known he'd had a "late, late night " playing Portal 2 and an "early, early morning" listening to the Clash on full blast.

The tone was set when Tom, having wished his new best friend James a good morning, asked him if he recently been arrested or bailed. When James demurred Tom set off on the long path to prove why either if not both of the above moves should be adopted asap by the authorities.

But the younger Murdoch had clearly not wasted his time since his last appearance and rolled out the answers that made it clear that it was not him but several other people, particularly long-time News of the World legal expert Tom Crone and the last Editor of the NoW Colin Myler whose memories should be further examined.

Indeed James, whose own memory seems to have taken several unplanned holidays in recent years, was happy to rest on his record of frankness and honesty over the whole issue. Not to mention the fact that so far there is no paper trail telling another story.

With Joe Strummer no doubt belting away in the back of his brain, Tom religiously asked all the questions everyone had told him he should and James religiously trotted out the answers he had learned.

Getting nowhere fast Tom then turned the question the minor Murdoch had not prepared an answer to:

"Are you familiar with the term mafia", he asked.

The minders sat forward, the committee sat forward even James sat forward. Was Tom going to reveal some phone-hacking of his own?

Have you heard the term "omerta", he added.

"I am not familiar with such things ", said James in a quote that could be drawn from Godfather 6-had there been one.

"You must be the first mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a criminal enterprise", said Tom.

"Mr Watson, that is inappropriate", said James.

With beds to be checked for horses heads Tom may not have got the chance to read the Sky News strapline running during the clash with a small"c". It said Scotland Yard's hacking squad had 300 million, repeat 300 million, News International emails to look at.

If that is even half true this one will run and run and run and run and run....

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

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.