Four and a half members of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee have put their Conservative colleagues in an awfully tricky position.
Therese Coffey, Louise Mensch, Philip Davies and Damian Collins voted as a block on 10 of the 16 proposed amendments in the CMS Select Committee report into whether Parliament had been by News International. Three of them (TC, LM, and PD) voted as a block on 13 of the 16 amendments. They were on the losing side against five Labour members and a Liberal Democrat.
Four and a half because although John Whittingdale, as chair, did not vote, at the Committee’s press conference, he let slip in answer to a question that “I would merely observe that as well being Chairman of the Committee I am a Conservative Member of Parliament”. By this implying he would have voted with the Conservative bloc had he not been chair.
Almost all the amendments the Conservatives objected to were judgments about the behaviour of News International, News Corporation, Rupert and James Murdoch. Almost all the judgments were critical. These included the soon-to-be-infamous line that Rupert Murdoch “is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company” (paragraph 229, p.70).
This has, inevitably, politicized the report, despite consensus on many of the substantive findings. The initial reaction, strongly argued by Louise Mensch, is that this split jeopardises the credibility of the report.
But the Conservatives may find they are more lastingly damaged. The last thing the Tory party needs right now is a public perception that it remains protective of News Corporation.
Last week we learnt about the astonishingly close relationship between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s office and News Corporation. Hunt was, as he freely confessed on his website, a ‘cheerleader’ for Rupert Murdoch’s contribution to the UK.
In the coming weeks we will hear, in great detail, about how close David Cameron and senior Tory Ministers were to the Murdochs and other senior figures at News International. Think regular rides on Raisa the horse discussed on a daily basis.
So Conservatives must have been hoping to make clear that this closeness was a thing of the past, to emphasise – at any every opportunity – that they have moved on and are no longer supportive of News International.
Yet here are four Conservatives, being seen to vote en masse against the critical judgments of their Parliamentary colleagues about News Corporation.
It could get worse. News Corporation itself has yet to make a full statement. If it comes out strongly on the party political line, and aims its fire at the Labour members of the Committee, the Conservatives will inevitably look – once again – like they are on the side of News Corporation. Not, in other words, on the side of the victims of phone hacking or the public.
Four and a half Select Committee members could just have unintentionally made their front bench colleagues collateral damage.