10 Sep 2010

Exclusive: MPs ‘backed off’ over phone-hacking probe


Channel 4 News learns that members of the committee set up to investigate phone hacking shied away from forcing News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks to attend a meeting with them.

After Mrs Brooks had repeatedly avoided being interviewed, four MPs on the Commons culture, media and sport committee wanted to ask the Serjeant at Arms, the Commons official in charge of security, to issue a warrant forcing her to attend.

In an exclusive interview, former Plaid Cymru MP, and a member of the committee, Adam Price said he was warned by a senior Conservative committee member that if the committee pursued this plan, the tabloids might punish him by looking into his personal life.

“We could have used the nuclear option. We decided not to, I think to some extent because of what I was told at the time by a senior Conservative member of the committee, who I know was in direct contact with NI execs, that if we went for her, called her back, subpoenaed her, they would go for us – which meant effectively that they would delve into our personal lives in order to punish them and I think that’s part of the reason we didn’t do it. In retrospect I think that’s regrettable,” Mr Price said.

“It’s important now that the new inquiry stands firm where we didn’t. Politicians aren’t above the law but neither are journalists including Rupert Murdoch’s bovver boys with biros.”

Adrian Sanders, a Liberal Democrat MP who also sat on the committee, told Channel 4 News the its chair John Whittingdale had hinted to colleagues of the personal repercussions of pursuing the newspaper group.

“The chairman himself had made some sort of allusion towards what could happen were we to go down this route, but there was no surprising that, as we knew that from the beginning,” he said.

Tom Watson, a Labour member of the committee, said he found the experience “intimidating”.

He told Channel 4 News: “A former Labour cabinet minister has confirmed to me this week that News International talked to my former colleagues in No 10 Downing Street to ask them whether I would withdraw my aggressive line of questioning.

“So yes, they did try and stop me conducting my inquiries and it was very intimidating.”

In a statement to Channel 4 News, the Conservative committee chairman John Whittingdale, said: “When it was suggested by Labour members to force Rebekah Brooks to attend, I recall a conversation with Adam Price in which the repercussions for members’ personal lives were mentioned.

“But that had no bearing on my own decision to oppose bringing in the Serjeant at Arms. Nor do I have any reason to think there was any suggestion that News International would target our private lives.”

MPs have this week approved a new parliamentary inquiry into the phone hacking scandal following fresh allegations that the News of the World repeatedly hacked into celebrities’ phones when the prime minister’s communications director Andy Coulson was editor.

Mr Coulson has repeatedly denied he was aware of the practice.

News International told Channel 4 News: “Three News International executives appeared at the CMS (Culture Media and Sport) Select committee and the company cooperated extensively with its investigations.”