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Tuesday 21 July 2009

Murdoch is Served (8)

I was initially disappointed: today’s appearance before the House of Commons committee for Culture, Media and Sport by current and former takers of the Murdoch shilling did not include the Sun’s twinkle toed yet domestically combative editor Rebekah Wade. Instead, News Group sent lawyer Tom Crone, which has turned out to more than make up for Ms Wade’s absence.

Why so? Was his testimony so riveting? Well, no it wasn’t, but that wasn’t where I was looking. Today’s most interesting bits were all about disclosure – and the attempt by News Group to, shall we say, temporarily reshape the committee before which their team was testifying.

First off, chairman John Whittingdale declared that he was on the board of the Tory party, who employ Andy Coulson, Young Dave’s right hand man, who also gave evidence today.

Next, Labour MP Tom Watson also had a declaration to make. He was “in dispute” with the Sun, and was represented by Carter-Ruck and Partners, libel specialists whose services do not come cheap.

Then Crone advised that he’d sent a letter last night complaining about Watson’s presence on the committee. Whittingdale had taken advice and Watson stayed. It wasn’t the only protest from Rupe’s troops: former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner complained about Tory MP Philip Davies, who also stayed.

The session overran, which suggests that Whittingdale was playing a straight bat and letting all his colleagues get their questions in – not easy to do for an MP whose party’s communications chief is one of those being grilled by his committee. And, as the Beeb has reported, there was plenty of questioning. But what more did we learn?

Well, as the Guardian noted, there were a lot of not totally committed or convincing answers from the News Group team. Andy Coulson, though, looks to have done OK, even managing a swipe at Tom Watson when he said that it was possible to sit next to someone but not know what they were up to – a reference to Watson’s presence in 10 Downing Street near the disgraced Damian McBride. But right now we’re waiting on two inputs to the process: what following up will come out of the committee, and what more do Nick Davies and the Guardian have in the tank?

Otherwise, the big headline has to be that the Murdoch press has attempted to interfere with the working of a Parliamentary Select Committee. Tom Watson – an MP who is clearly not at one with the behaviour of the Murdoch empire – made a final statement to the hearing, quoting the Speaker’s counsel as saying that the attempt to remove him “was very close to improper interference with the work of a committee”.

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