MPs on the committee concluded in their report on the News of the World phone hacking scandal that not only did Murdoch, his companies and staff mislead them in the course of their investigations, but also that he is ‘not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company’. They also decided that former News International boss Les Hinton lied to MPs and that NI generally displayed ‘blatant contempt’ for the committee. Ouch.
The report has prompted BSkyB boss Jeremy Darroch to stress that BSkyB and News Corporation are separate companies, despite Murdoch owning 39% of the broadcaster. ‘We believe that Sky’s record as a broadcaster is the most important factor in determining our fitness to hold a licence’ he said. Looks like he’s putting a bit of distance between BSkyB and the rest of the Murdoch empire, just in case…
BSkyB is regulated by Ofcom, whose rules state that owners of broadcasting channels have to be ‘fit and proper’ organisations. It is quite possible that the Culture Media & Sport committee's conclusion today increases the prospect of a similar verdict by the regulator. In which case, News Corp could be forced to relinquish control of the broadcaster, or the Murdochs might have to relinquish control of News Corp. Neither of which will appeal.
You might ask what most MPs know about running a business, of course. Fortunately for the Murdochs, a select committee’s bark is a lot worse than its bite. In fact, as many veterans of post-financial-crisis Treasury Select Committee hearings can attest, select committees in and of themselves are toothless. The worst than can happen as a direct result of this is that witnesses can be deemed to be in contempt of Parliament and requested to apologise. Although even this modest sanction has not been imposed since 1956 - that’s light-touch government intervention in action.
The publication of the report itself was not without drama, as the 10 MPs on the committee split along party lines - the six Labour and LibDem members supporting its conclusions while the four Tory members refusing to endorse it and calling it ‘partisan.’ Not to mention that Louise Mensch is now claiming that the 'not a fit person' conclusion was last minute and had not been explicitly discussed before the reports conclusions were made public.
All of which just goes to show that whatever the Murdoch clan may have lost in the way of dignity or influence since the various News of the World investigations got under way, they certainly haven’t lost their ability to divide opinion. In a useful bit of PR, Murdoch sent an email to all News Corp staff last thing yesterday to say that whilst the findings were tough, he is 'proud' that the company is now doing the right thing and putting mistakes behind it.
Although Ofcom’s next move will be watched with great interest by all concerned, this select committee report is really only a sideshow. Leveson is the main act, and that one’s set to run and run…