LONDON (Reuters) - Members of Britain’s ruling Conservative party repeatedly tried to soften language directed at Rupert Murdoch and his son James in a parliamentary report, before they ultimately decided to vote against it in its entirety.
The Culture, Media and Sport committee found after its five-year investigation that Rupert Murdoch was unfit to run a major global company and was responsible for a culture of illegal phone-hacking that has shaken his media empire.
The report was passed 6-4 by the committee, with all four votes against cast by members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party. Five opposition Labour members supported the report, backed by the lone Liberal Democrat, whose party is part of Cameron’s coalition government.
The largely failed effort to deflect some blame from the Murdochs could hurt Cameron, who is already under fire over accusations that he has done too much to protect Murdoch’s business interests. That a Liberal Democrat ally sided with the opposition is also damaging to Cameron’s coalition.
The lack of unanimity, and the strong wording of the report, were both unusual. Select committees include a balance of government and opposition members and usually try to seek consensus to show that their conclusions are non-partisan.
Despite repeatedly failing to soften the report in places, the Conservatives said they might have approved it had it not been for an amendment by Labour’s outspoken Murdoch critic Tom Watson that described Murdoch as “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”.
Conservative committee member Louise Mensch said: “I would nonetheless have voted for the report and explained where I disagreed ... had that line about Rupert Murdoch’s unfitness to run an international company been left out.”
She added: “That will mean that it will be correctly seen as a partisan report and we’ve lost a very great deal of its credibility, which is an enormous shame.”
Among the failed attempts by Conservative committee members to soften the report’s criticism of the Murdochs was a passage that said lawmakers were “astonished” that Rupert’s son James Murdoch had not sought more information about phone hacking.
An amendment proposed by Conservative Damian Collins to change “astonished” to “surprised” lost five votes to four.
“I think most ordinary people will take the words ‘simply astonishing’ actually to mean: ‘We don’t believe you,'” said Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at London’s City University.
Another amendment proposed by Mensch and fellow Conservative Therese Coffey would have highlighted that James Murdoch was home with his two small children when he received an email that might have alerted him to the extent of hacking. James had testified that he was too distracted to read it fully. The amendment was defeated by seven votes to three.
Labour’s Watson consistently argued that the blame must be laid at Murdoch’s door in the strongest terms.
“It is his company, his culture, his people, his business, his failures, his lies, his crimes, the price of profits, and his power,” said Watson, a dogged Murdoch critic, in a speech at a press conference to present the report.
Committee Chairman John Whittingdale, a Conservative who votes only in a tie, which never occurred, countered: “It is fair to say this was not the unanimous view.”
Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Additional reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Peter Graff