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Watching Parliament open-mouthed

July 24, 2011

This week, Parliament was recalled to hear evidence from senior police officers (in the Home Affairs select committee) and Rebekah Brooks, Rupert and James Murdoch (in the Culture Media and Sport select committee).  Much has been written about both in all forms of media, but I was not interested in the “human” side of the story that many focused on, but rather the way in which both the PMs and the witnesses chose to use evidence. I was open-mouth because it looked like an abuse of evidence for the most part.

I was viewing the sittings of both committees whilst trying to write an introduction to a paper.  I always find this quite hard. I use a technique I would think many scientists do, where you write a sentence and, because you don’t necessarily have the most appropriate supporting reference to hand, you write “(ref)”, with the intention of coming back to it later with the supporting evidence. The key thing is that you do come back to it later. This because you live and die by the evidence you deploy here and elsewhere in the paper. For this reason, writing a paper takes bloody ages, whereas I’m writing this blogpost watching a grand prix, the Tour de France and the test match.  At the end of the writing process, I naturally feel like I have a command of the evidence I’ve used and could defend it when pressed on what I’ve said. The select committees could not have been more different.

The first part of this evidence-abusing horror show was the Metropolitan Police Farce. These senior police officers had a week to prepare their evidence, in a profession in which evidence is, I would guess, quite important.  I’m no lawyer, but I’d guess that when prosecuting a crime the time line is important.  How could you ever successflly convict anyone if you can’t establish the correct chronology of the crime. Did you don’t, the defence are likely to emphasize the doubt. Yet what I saw amazed me: these police officers could only provide answers to the nearest calender month, and sometimes this didn’t even make sense, like appointing someone in January to cover somebody who didn’t get ill until February. Overall it was astonishingly weak.

Then there was the Culture Media and Sport committee.  It has been suggested that the Murdochs used a deliberate “don’t know” or “it was someone else” strategy. If true, they shouldn’t be in charge of their own company.  If false, then the judicial inquiry will find them out.  But in this forum, it was the statements made by Louise Mensch which amazed me.  Although she is now planning to correct the Parliamentary record, she clearly misquoted Piers Morgan to make it seem as if he was boasting about hacking, which he never was. Now, Morgan is no angel, but Mensch must have known that she would be challenged on the substance of what she said. Even if she was making the statement based upon evidence not yet in the public domain, why used as your evidence something that is and use it so badly?

Finally, there was Rebekah Brooks.  She did two things that made me shake my head in disbelief.  First, she claimed that the table presented in the “What price privacy now?”, in which illegal transactions were tablulated by newspaper, had The Observer and The Guardian in the top 5.  However, The Observer was ninth and The Guardian didn’t appear in the table at all.  Presumably she thought she could get away with it, and she was right for the most part, being challenged only on the position of The Observer.  The second jaw-dropping moment was when she was asked if she had read the CMS committees previous report based, in part, on the evidence she had given.  She replied, and I paraphrase, “I didn’t read all of it…”  Hang on, I thought, here is a Parliamentary report, written about your business, and in places specifically about you, and you haven’t bothered to read it all?  Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d have read it twice and back-to-front if it was about me.  This, for me, summed the whole thing up: if you don’t think evidence is important, that you think you can argue your way out of trouble you’ll probably behave like the characters in this sorry saga. Thankfully, I’m not this type of person, because, as I’ve said before, evidence is sacred.

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