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07.18.11

Murdoch’s Parliament Appearance

Who’ll be grilling Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks at Parliament on Tuesday morning? David A. Graham reports on the committee, the consequences—and the possibility of perjury.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and his ousted former protégée Rebekah Brooks will walk into the Palace of Westminster for what promises to be an uncomfortable few hours. What is going to happen, and who will be asking the questions? Here’s your cheat sheet on what to expect and whether it matters.

Who exactly is testifying?
Three witnesses are on the schedule: Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp.; James Murdoch, his fourth child, heir apparent, and the chairman of News International, News Corp.’s British newspaper subsidiary; and Rebekah Brooks, who was CEO of News International until Friday and was editor of News of the World from 2001 to 2003. According to the committee’s agenda, the two Murdochs will testify first, followed by Brooks. Watch the hearing live here.

Who’s asking the questions?
Brooks and the Murdochs will appear before the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. It’s a panel of 10 members of the House of Commons, Parliament’s lower house, including five members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, four members of the opposition Labour Party, and one member of the Liberal Democrats, who are members of the ruling coalition with the Tories. The Independent has entertaining one-sentence bios for all of them. What’s unusual about the select committees is that they’re not assigned by party bosses, as other parliamentary committees (as well as U.S. congressional committees) are. Instead, party whips appoint a selection committee that appoints members, a move meant to reduce politicization of the process. If you must know more, the BBC has a useful primer on all the nitty-gritty.

Didn’t Rupert and James Murdoch say they weren’t going to attend?
That’s right. But after members of Parliament flexed their rhetorical muscle—and perhaps as the extent of the public-relations problem on their hands became clear—they reversed their position. Here’s what happened: The committee first issued an invitation to Brooks and the two Murdochs. But neither man is a British citizen—Rupert was born in Australia and became a U.S. citizen in 1985, while James was born in Britain in 1972 and also naturalized—so the invitation wasn’t compulsory. The committee then upped the ante by issuing a summons, a more aggressive step. It appears the Murdochs also could have dodged that, and indeed they initially indicated they wouldn’t appear, before quickly changing their minds. Still, the brief window set up some entertaining speculation about what might happen if the Murdochs refused to appear. Parliament could, in theory, vote to imprison either of the men (possibly in a cell beneath Big Ben) for contempt. But that law hasn’t been used to levy a fine since the 1660s or jail anyone since the 1800s, according to historians, and it’s not clear whether such an action would stand up to scrutiny by contemporary courts.

So this committee really means business?
Don’t be so sure. The select committees have little real power, and the Culture, Media and Sport committee in particular is known for being soft. “It’s known as the committee for tickets because they get invited to so many plays, cinemas, art galleries,” says Kevin Maguire, a longtime political reporter who’s now an editor at the Daily Mirror. “It is widely known as the cushiest [gig].” What’s more, Chair John Whittington, a Conservative, was quoted as saying two months ago that he wasn’t interested in reopening the hacking case because “we’ve got other things to do as well you know.” Whittington is also said to be close to Les Hinton, the recently resigned Murdoch deputy, and to have dined with Brooks. On the other hand, there are several bulldogs on the committee. In addition to frequently being proclaimed as the first MP to have a blog, Tom Watson has been perhaps the most dogged advocate for investigating Murdoch outside of The Guardian. His Labour colleague Paul Farrelly, a former journalist, also will likely hit the trio hard. And even Whittington has been sounding more belligerent of late. After the resignation of John Yates, deputy chief of Scotland Yard, on Monday, The Guardian posted clips of Yates’ session in front of the committee in September 2009, showing a cordial but still aggressive questioning that seemed to ruffle the policeman at times.

What is the committee trying to find out?
They’ve got a ton of questions. It’s the first time Rupert Murdoch has spoken on the matter outside of statements and an interview with his own Wall Street Journal. The short version is they want to know what each of the witnesses knew and when, who was responsible, and who oversaw the company’s payouts to former employees. Given Rupert Murdoch’s history, MPs are likely to cast a skeptical eye on any assertion that he was a hands-off boss. Guessing at, and suggesting, questions has become a popular parlor game for the British press. Check out suggestions from The Daily Beast’s own Geoffrey Robertson, a leading British lawyer, The Independent, The Guardian, and Sky News. And Watson, ever tech-friendly, is also soliciting questions on Twitter with the hashtag #questions4murdoch.

Murdoch will be under oath, so he can’t lie, right?
Not necessarily. It’s actually quite uncommon for witnesses before the committee to be sworn in, and the offense for which Hinton apparently resigned—misleading the committee during a hearing—wasn’t under oath, so it wasn’t perjury. (Hinton still insists he was being honest about the facts as far as he knew.) Some members of the committee are already clamoring for oaths during Tuesday’s hearing, but that will be decided only after members are briefed by parliamentary staff before the hearing. That doesn’t mean he can lie with impunity, though. Even when lying isn’t under oath it can have repercussions—ask Hinton—and lying to the committee could earn a witness a fine or imprisonment under the same archaic law that could have been used to imprison them. There’s a third option besides being truthful and lying, too: Any of the three could decline to answer questions on grounds of self-incrimination. But as Geoffrey Robertson notes, that would likely blow the scandal even further open, so Murdoch will probably try to avoid it.

Didn’t Rebekah Brooks get arrested the other day?
Yes, she was, and the whole thing points to what may seem to Americans to be an eccentricity of the British justice system. You might have noticed that after the arrests of former News of the World staffers like Andy Coulson and Brooks, there was no record of them being charged. That’s because you don’t need to be charged with a crime to be arrested in England. According to the law, the grounds for arrest are as follows: “A person’s involvement or suspected involvement or attempted involvement in the commission of a criminal offence; AND Reasonable grounds for believing that the person’s arrest is necessary.” An arrest often comes at some point during a police investigation, where in the U.S. police might request that a suspect come in for questioning without a formal arrest.

What a raw deal!
Perhaps, but in this case the arrest could help Brooks. It means she can decline to answer certain questions by claiming that they might interfere with a police investigation—an ironclad out without the baggage of suggesting self-incrimination. (In accepting the summons, James Murdoch tried to set similar expectations by telling Whittington that he and his father would be mindful of not prejudicing police work.) Indeed, there was immediate concern upon her arrest that she might use it to skip out altogether—but she will appear.

What comes next?
Other than waiting for the next bombshell scoop from The Guardian, the next step is for members of the committee to deliberate in private following the testimony, then issue a report to the government, which must reply within 60 days. However, the report isn’t binding, and the government might be able to deflect some of it—though in such a high-profile case, that will be tough. Regardless, the real news is likely to be what the Murdochs and Brooks say, and whether it will save or sink the foundering News Corp. ship.