The House of Commons could jail News International executives for spying on MP Tom Watson in an attempt to block his investigation into phone hacking, an MP has warned.
Birmingham MP John Hemming (Lib Dem Yardley) said managers from the media organisation could be locked up for “contempt of Parliament” using powers which have not been exercised for more than 100 years.
News International executives are already facing the prospect of being reprimanded for misleading MPs, following the publication of a controversial report by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee into the phone hacking scandal.
The committee had investigated phone hacking at News International, which publishes The Times and The Sun and is owned by News Corporation, the company controlled by Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch.
It followed reports that journalists at The News of the World, the Sunday tabloid owned by News International until its closure last year, had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
The committee concluded that three News International executives – Les Hinton, Colin Myler, and Tom Crone – had misled it. The MPs announced plans to submit a motion to the Commons accusing the three men of being in “contempt of Parliament” and possibly recommending that they should be punished.
It also warned media mogul Rupert Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run a major international corporation, but this passage was added to the findings by Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the committee despite opposition from Conservatives.
Mr Hemming said he was concerned by claims that News International had placed members of the committee under surveillance in an attempt to intimidate them.
News International’s parent company News Corporation has told the committee that Black Country MP Tom Watson (Lab West Bromwich East), a high-profile campaigner against phone hacking and a member of the committee, was placed under surveillance in 2009. Private investigator Derek Webb was hired to spy on him.
And giving evidence to the inquiry last year, James Murdoch, son of Rupert and Deputy Chief Operating Officer of News Corporation, admitted: “I am aware of the case of the surveillance of Mr Watson; again, under the circumstances, I apologise unreservedly for that.
"It is not something that I would condone, it is not something that I had knowledge of and it is not something that has a place in the way we operate.”
Mr Watson was not aware he had been placed under surveillance at the time. But the Committee said in its report: “Surveillance could be construed as an attempt to interfere with the work of the Committee.
"Members may feel inhibited in the discharge of their functions if they are concerned that their private lives will be intruded upon as a result.”
Mr Hemming said the Commons could use its powers to imprison members of the public found to be in “contempt of Parliament”. They were traditionally held in St Stephen’s Clock Tower, commonly known as Big Ben.
He said: “What has me most concerned is the idea that a company would instruct private investigators to get details of the lives of members of a select committee with a view to pressuring them not to do anything about wrong-doing.
"That, to me, is really very serious indeed. And it falls into the category of things that require not just an apology but a punishment. Parliament can lock somebody up for the Parliamentary session.”
In theory, the Commons has the power to imprison members of the public for contempt without a trial, in a similar way to a judge in a court. They can be jailed until the end of the current Parliamentary session, however long or short that may be.
According to a report published by Parliament in 1999, the last time this power was exercised was in 1880.
The last time a member of the public was summoned to the bar of the House – actually a white line on the carpet in the Commons chamber – to account for themselves was in 1957. In theory, that hearing could have led to a punishment being imposed.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee is to table a motion to the Commons accusing Mr Hinton, Mr Crone and Mr Myler of misleading it, as well as claiming that “corporately, the News of the World and News International misled the Committee.”
This could lead to contempt hearings in which the executives named are summoned to the bar of the Commons and ordered to apologise, or potentially to face some sort of punishment.
Not every MP backs the idea of a Commons hearing. Steve McCabe (Lab Selly Oak) said: “It doesn’t seem appropriate for the Commons to exercise this sort of quasi-judicial role in this day and age. It would be a piece of theatre rather than justice.”
The investigation split the committee on party lines While members agreed unanimously that Mr Murdoch’s media empire had misled their inquiry in a “blatant fashion”, Tory MPs refused to support the report after Labour and the sole Liberal Democrat added a line stating: “Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”.
Mr Watson, who proposed the line about Mr Murdoch, said he was disappointed that the Conservatives had been unwilling to sign up.
He said: “These people corrupted our country. They brought shame on our police force and our Parliament. They lied, they cheated, blackmailed and bullied and we should all be ashamed when we think how we cowered before them for too long.”