The Murdoch hearings: What the rules say

Much print has been expended on what powers the culture, media and sport committee have, and what the witnesses may or may not be allowed to say - but what are the rules?

Much print has been expended on what powers the culture, media and sport select committee have, and what the witnesses may or may not be allowed to say when they question Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks this afternoon Рbut what exactly are the rules?

The “Guide for witnesses giving written or oral evidence to a House of Commons select committee” (pdf) states:

“If you know that matters which may arise during oral evidence are currently before a court of law, or court proceedings are imminent. If you anticipate such issues arising, you should discuss with the clerk of the committee how this might affect the oral evidence you can give.”

However, with particular regard to Ms Brooks, arrested on Sunday and bailed until October, the guidelines (pdf) state:

“Witnesses to select committees enjoy absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give, whether written or oral, provided that it is formally accepted as such by the Committee. Absolute privilege protects freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings; it is enshrined in statutory form in Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which prohibits proceedings in Parliament from being called in question in any court.

“In practical terms this means that select committee witnesses are immune from civil or criminal proceedings founded upon that evidence; nor can their evidence be relied upon in civil or criminal proceedings against any other person.”

With respect to fears all three will ‘lawyer up’, and amidst speculation they will be made to swear on oath to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, the guidelines (pdf) add:

“When hearing oral evidence, committees have the power to require witnesses to answer questions. In practice, evidence-taking before committees is conducted with a degree of informality and such powers are seldom used. A committee also has power to take evidence on oath. This rarely happens but, if the procedure is used, witnesses are liable to the laws of perjury.”

And on privilege, the “Parliamentary privilege and qualified privilege” guidelines (pdf) confirm:

“There is no doubt that matters that are contained in speech in the House or in a Committee are subject to absolute privilege under Article 9 and so, for that matter, are matters contained in House of Commons papers.”

Furthermore, on the rights of the witnesses, “The Departmental Select Committee System” research paper (pdf) says witnesses can “expect some protection from Parliament”.

It’s not all grim for Rupert, James and Rebekah, however; the witness guide (pdf) adds:

“The House will cover reasonable expenses related to a witness attending a committee hearing. Committee staff are able to offer advice on getting to the evidence session and are in a position to confirm what travel and other expenses can be met by the House. In some circumstances committees can book and pay for tickets on behalf of a witness in advance of a hearing.”

Left Foot Forward will have reaction to the hearings later this afternoon. In the meantime, enjoy!

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.