John Whittingdale was once asked which figure in the media he admired most.
“Rupert Murdoch,” he replied.
It seems an unlikely answer for the man at the head of an investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World, a former paper of the Murdoch empire.
But the chairman of the culture, media and sport committee stands by it. “He did two things that were very brave, that changed the landscape of British media,” Whittingdale says. “First was the establishment of Wapping, which was a deliberate move to destroy the power of the Fleet Street unions. He deserves a lot of credit for that. His second move is even braver, and had a longer-lasting effect. He launched Sky… It completely changed the face of British broadcasting.”
Surely Murdoch wouldn’t be his first choice now? “I will be absolutely clear that I admire him greatly for those two things,” he replies. “Obviously, what has gone on in his newspapers one doesn’t hesitate to condemn. I don’t think it was his newspapers alone. He was one of the worst, but just because he allowed a culture to grow – it was very destructive and clearly criminal in some cases – that doesn’t detract from his achievements in other areas.”
It’s a courageous answer. It’s also a balanced answer, which perhaps accounts for some of Whittingdale’s success as chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee over the last six years.
The committee, under his chairmanship, is one of the most high profile in Parliament, receiving attention for inquiries into football governance, the BBC and the Olympics. But its 11 members could never have prepared themselves for the high drama surrounding the televised sessions on phone hacking.
Bankers apologising at the Treasury committee in 2009 looked like an episode of Judge Judy in comparison to the John Grisham-esque spectacle of Rebekah Brooks and Rupert and James Murdoch.
“The select committee found itself in a glare of publicity that was completely unprecedented,” agrees Whittingdale. “It was the most watched event that has ever taken place in Parliament. We were broadcast across America, Australia, France, China… I’d love to know how many watched. I’m sure it was tens of millions. There are stories about how they had parties in Australia – sat around and drank Foster’s and watched the select committee. It’s a wonderful vision.”
For one committee member in particular, the inquiry has brought almost cult-celebrity status. Time magazine described Labour MP Tom Watson as the “man who humbled Murdoch”.
His inquisition of Rupert and James Murdoch, and later of former News of the World editor Colin Myler and ex-head of legal affairs Tom Crone, was undoubtedly gripping. A nation collectively clenched its buttocks as Watson told Rupert Murdoch: “I’ll come to your son in a minute.”
Watson has since been promoted within the Labour ranks – to the new role of deputy chairman for its favourite media darling. But this has caused a rupture in the committee’s ranks. Whittingdale called for Watson to step down. “If Tom is going to be a member of the shadow cabinet he should step down, no question,” the Conservative MP said at the time.
Watson took to Twitter to respond: “To be clear: I don’t hold a frontbench policy brief, so remain on DCMS select committee. The Tories can say all they like. I’m not budging.”
Whittingdale sighs about it now. “It’s a decision for the Labour Party,” he says. “There’s a convention that select committees should be obviously independent and that membership should be confined to backbenchers. That’s a sensible convention, and I do think that there are potential conflicts for members who hold frontbench responsibilities. I understand his wish to see through the phone-hacking inquiry, but… I remain of the view that, in principle, select committees should not include frontbenchers.”
What if he refuses to stand down? “It’s early days, but I think if he was determined not to stand down, it may be that the liaison committee would take a view.”
Whittingdale is sitting in his parliamentary office, surrounded by committee papers, Olympics trinkets and clutter. Settled into a deep, black sofa, he explains how the committee prepared for the extraordinary phone-hacking sessions. “I asked to have Speaker’s Counsel sat next to me,” he says. “That was very important, because it was about where would be in danger of prejudicing the police.
“We also did have advice on presentation.” He makes a face. “But the committee had a pretty clear idea on how they wanted to handle it, anyway.”
There was one event, though, that no one could have planned for – a man throwing a shaving-foam pie at 80-year-old Rupert Murdoch live on TV. “It would have been on the front page of every newspaper anyway, but the tabloids went bananas,” says Whittingdale. “And, of course, it made Wendi [Rupert’s wife] a national heroine. It added that little bit of extra drama.”
It also indicated a massive breach of parliamentary security. An external inquiry into the incident, on Speaker John Bercow’s orders, has now been completed. “There’s no question that lessons have been learnt.” Whittingdale nods. “It seemed to me extraordinary that there was no additional security. There was no plan. No apparent consideration had been given to what to do in the event of an incident of this kind. It was chaos, pandemonium. It was very noticeable that when we had Crone and Myler in a few weeks later – again, a very high-profile hearing – we had people in flak jackets outside the door, checking every person.”
Whittingdale reveals that the committee is getting close to finishing the inquiry, with a few evidence sessions still to go. “I would hope we aim to get something out by about Christmas,” he says.
But it won’t be an easy report to compile. The business of the phone-hacking inquiry has been a tangled mess of misinformation, contradictions and confusion. Whittingdale is aware of the potential headache: “What we’ve done is concentrate purely on any evidence that suggests that previous evidence given to us was untrue. So the question the select committee has been considering these last few months is, ‘Was the select committee misled?’ When people ask, ‘Are you going to broaden the inquiry to take in other newspapers?’, the answer is no. There are others doing that.”
In February 2010, the culture, media and sport select committee issued its first report on press misconduct at the News of the World. It condemned the testimony of the newspaper’s witnesses, describing the environment of “collective amnesia” and “deliberate obfuscation”.
Whittingdale says that the revelations of the last six months have made him “all the more proud” of that report. “It quite plainly said, in pretty strong terms, the committee believed it had been lied to, and that it was widespread. David Cameron has said in the House, ‘We should have done more. We politicians didn’t foresee this.’ Well, actually, my committee did, but unfortunately our conclusions weren’t acted on.”
It was the police who failed to act, to Whittingdale’s mind. “The biggest question is one that we haven’t even begun to explore. It’s the most serious question of all – that all this evidence has been in the possession of the police for four to five years, and they chose to do nothing with it. The so-called ‘For Neville’ email [part of the alleged cover-up at the paper], which now is obviously the focus of our current inquiries, is absolutely critical. It is the smoking gun.
"The police had possessed the ‘For Neville’ email for four years. We’d established there was only one person called Neville in the employment of the News of the World, who happened to be the chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck. Did they question him? No. They sat on all this evidence which is now coming out, and which has led already to the arrest of 10–12 people.”
He claims it will now be Lord Justice Leveson’s job to look into whether the police failed to act on the evidence supplied to them. Cameron announced the Leveson inquiry in July, setting its remit to investigate the specific allegations about phone hacking at the News of the World and payment to the press, as well as a second review of culture and ethics in the British media.
“Leveson has been given the overarching task of discovering the truth,” explains Whittingdale. “And Leveson has more powers than we do. We’re not a judicial inquiry, and we can’t demand to see server records, email trails, as the police can.”
Whittingdale is now leading another inquiry, through the new joint committee on privacy and injunctions, which recently had its introductory session. “The critical question [for the new committee] will be, ‘What is in the public interest?’” he explains. “That determines whether it’s legitimate for the press to explore, to investigate, to publish stories affecting people’s private lives.”
It’s a larger group than his CMS committee. “And it’s been complicated by the fact that we are examining issues in the same area as Lord Leveson,” says Whittingdale. “Ours is narrowly focused on privacy and the enforcement of injunctions, whereas his is into the whole issue of press regulation.”
He justifies the existence of the two inquiries. “There were a lot of complaints from the media about the judge who made privacy law. Therefore, it would be pretty odd for Parliament not to have pursued our own consideration of this. If you believe that Parliament should be setting these rules, not judges, then it was not for us to say, ‘Oh, let Lord Leveson do it.’ We were very clear that this is a matter for Parliament.”
The joint committee is expected to produce its first report by the end of February 2012, before Lord Justice Leveson’s findings are published.
Does Whittingdale, a former shadow culture secretary, still have ministerial ambitions? “I always said there are certain jobs in government I’d like to do. I’d only want to be a minister if I felt I had something to contribute, in which I took a close interest. If that opportunity came along I’d think about it very seriously.”
However, he’s not done with his committee yet. There are new investigations awaiting his attention. He mentions an upcoming evidence session with the BBC director-general and chairman of the BBC Trust. And how he is being “bombarded” with letters about the decision on Formula 1 broadcast rights, which is likely to come up.
The committee has also begun its inquiry into the operation of the Gambling Act. Whittingdale adds: “We might well want to look at Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local TV. We might well want to look at the government’s plans for broadband and rural provision. There are a lot of very live issues around.”
He’s also in favour of parliamentary committees being given more power. This includes ministers being appointed by select committees and committees having the ability to table amendments to legislation. He states: “Ministerial appointments are still for the prime minister – it would be a big step. But I can see someday that might well happen.”
But for the moment, phone hacking is the biggest show in town. Whittingdale admits he is unsure whether or not Rupert Murdoch was putting on an act when he appeared before the committee in July. “I don’t know, is the answer,” he says. “His performance became sharper as it went through.”
He picks his words carefully. “There was a certain amount of… role play, if you like. On the one hand he’s an elderly man, on the other hand he is chairman of one of the most powerful corporations in the world.”
He reveals, however, that the Murdoch evidence sessions might never have happened. "We utilised [summoning] powers that had hardly ever been used,” he says, “and against somebody who is seen to be one of the world’s most powerful men. Within four hours of initially telling us he was unable to appear, he changed his mind and said he would come.”
Whittingdale continues: “I have to say, we had begun to speculate what would have happened if he’d said no. And the answer is, nobody knew. I would have reported to the floor of the House that the committee had issued a summons that he had failed to comply with.
“The next stage would have been that the House of Commons could pass a resolution, so the order is re-dispatched from a vote on the floor of the Commons. But if that was served and he’d still said no, then you’re in totally unexplored territory. Nobody had the first idea. There was talk about cells in the clock tower…”
Rupert Murdoch locked up in the clock tower? That would certainly have extended the powers of the culture, media and sports committee a bit.
But that’s no way to treat the person you most admire in the media. Just as well for John Whittingdale that Murdoch Senior said yes.