The Culture, Media and Sport committee, inquiring into allegations about the News of the World’s hacking into people’s voicemail, is hearing evidence from its editor today; proceedings have been livened up somewhat by News International’s lawyer’s objection to Tom Watson’s participation in the inquiry. The argument is that, since he is currently suing News International, his participation is unfair: it breaches “natural justice”, is ocntrary to the article 6 Convention right, and breaches Parliament’s own rules. News International says it will complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards about Watson’s taking part. There’s likely to be a fair amount of anger about this in the blogosphere – from Labour -supporting blogs at any rate. But I think News International’s stance is quite reasonable.
I think the natural justice point is a bit of a vague one, and I think it’s well over the top to bring human rights into it – I don’t see how the inquiry will determine News International’s civil rights for article 6 purposes. Making bogus human rights points like that is the kind of thing that brings the Human Rights Act into disrepute.
But it’s quite true that Parliament’s own rules make his participation questionable. MP’s Code of Conduct, paragraph 83, second bullet, says (citing a 1992 report):
…when a member of a Committee, particularly the Chairman, has a financial interest which is directly affected by a particular inquiry or when he or she considers that a personal interest may reflect upon the work of the Committee or its subsequent Report, the Member should stand aside from the Committee proceedings relating to it.
I don’t know the details of his lawsuit, but on what we do know, Watson does indeed seem to me arguably to have a personal interest that may affect the report here. In addition, the sixth principle of public life suggests not only that Watson should declare any private interests relating to his public duties, but also that he should
take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
I don’t think it’s good enough for him and the chairman simply to brush this aside, or accuse the witnesses of acting improperly by raising it. They may well have had advice from Speaker’s Counsel that Watson can lawfully carry on if the chairman is content his views would not be affected – that must be right as a matter of strict law – but to stand on that seems to me quite arrogant.
I’m not sympathetic to News International: I’m with Max Mosley on privacy. I don’t have anything against Tom Watson. Not do I want to limit freedom of speech in Parliament: Watson can say what he likes about News International in the House, and be safe from legal action. That’s as it should be. But for him to take part in an inquiry and report which is likely to influence the views of other members, when to an observer there is an appearance of bias, I think is questionable, and News International make a fair point. Note that they are not refusing to answer MPs’ questions (which would I think have been wrong) but will simply complain.
Were this a local authority, a quango or any other kind of public body, it would be widely criticised for this kind of apparent unfairness – if Parliament wants to increase our respect for it, it needs in my view to come into line with general standards of fairness to which voters are held in their own professional lives.