Could MPs learn a thing or two about scrutiny?
“Come on Bobby J! Get stuck in!!! Throw the other fist will ya?!?” The Leveson Inquiry has made for fascinating viewing – and I imagine ministers that are due to appear for cross-examination are not looking forward to being grilled by one of the most well-known barristers in the land (i.e. Robert “Bobby J” Jay QC).
During my time in the civil service, one of the things that we were at pains to avoid was being judicially reviewed. This was especially the case if ministers were called to give evidence. The numerous training courses, seminars and guidance that I came across in my time is testament to that. And with good reason.
When ministers appear before Leveson, they will be subject to the sort of scrutiny that they REALLY don’t like. With the witnesses that appeared before Leveson so far, they’ve either dropped bombshells (wittingly or unwittingly) or they’ve shown themselves to be repeatedly evasive to the extent that people have been left with the sense that such witnesses are either not telling the truth and/or have something further to hide.
I remember chatting to a former acquaintance who I met during my Fast Stream days. She was a barrister before choosing to change careers. She told me that under cross-examination from a barrister or lawyer, the one thing to avoid was being led down a line of questioning that led you to a dead end that you could not get out of – that was the jackpot for the barrister concerned. This, if I recall correctly was one of the things the late libel barrister George Carman QC was very good at. During the 1990s he was regularly all over the papers – more often than not because he was quite good at defending them in libel cases. (There was a darker side to his personality which his son’s biography describes in vivid if depressing detail). The point I’m trying to make is that representatives of News International in particular have been full of “I don’t know/I don’t recall/possibly” sorts of responses because it makes it harder for those cross-examining them to tie them down.
Scrutiny in Parliament
I moaned in my previous blogpost On Parliamentary Scrutiny how difficult it is for MPs to properly hold ministers to account when they only get one question each during departmental questions. It’s all too easy for ministers to respond with party-political points in what should be sound and proper scrutiny.
Select committees are slightly different beasts, and we got a sense of just how effective they can be with Tom Watson’s scrutiny of News International in recent times, just as we do with those MPs that have some level of legal training and expertise. This makes me wonder whether there is a role for select committees to have senior counsel attached to them to assist in the scrutiny process – even leading the initial questioning of witnesses. Think of how much more select committees would get out of witnesses – in particular hostile ones – if they were subjected to proper scrutiny. It would also significantly increase the level of publicity that such select committees received. (Ideally it would be nice if a few more decent barristers were elected to Parliament to carry out such functions without separate posts).
Scrutiny style Question Time style
Mary Beard was on top form recently on BBC’s Question Time in Oldham. Peter Oborne, who I have a like/dislike feeling for, made the big mistake of trying to take on Professor Beard in her specialist subject – in which the latter quite predictably wiped the floor. As the other four panelists were squabbling over the economic crisis, she also made the point that as senior politicians, she would expect them to be on top of this crisis but their squabbling was demonstrating they were anything but. It was all a bit too “grand standing at the Oxford Union” for my liking.
This perhaps is also one of the frustrating points about Question Time – it’s all too similar to the forms in Parliament. None of the audience members are allowed to follow up properly the questions that they are trying to ask or the points that they are trying to make. It’s as if the only people who regularly get to do that sort of scrutiny in the public eye are the top level (mainly BBC) journalists. And I can’t help but feel they need to up their game in the face of politicians who have done media and communications training. (Yes, I’ve done some of that training too).
Perhaps it’s because in a court room there’s not so much time pressure vs that of a 2 minute Q&A in a TV studio that things coming out from Leveson have been so striking. When was the last time on Newsnight that an interview or a debate left you absolutely gobsmacked and speechless? Or perhaps that is not the purpose of such interviews anyway – perhaps more to provide some context on what was happening rather than to skewer an individual politician or minister.
This also moves nicely onto an article by Rowenna Davis in the New Statesman – The case against anti-politics. For those of you who prefer digital videos, have a look at Defending Politics: Why politics matters, from the RSA.
Scrutiny matters because scrutiny improves policy. It improves politics too. I’ve seen first hand what good scrutiny looks like – and I’ve also seen (all too often unfortunately) the opposite. In recent times I’ve gotten the sense that people see through the grand standing and the bluster that creates hot air and little else. The considered, calculated, planned and prepared scrutiny on the other hand – especially from those less well known on the other hand allows people to make judgements on the responses from those being scrutinised. Amongst other things, it allows – even encourages us, the general public to engage our brains and come to our own judgements. I’d like to think that this style of scrutiny can help – even just a little bit – in re-engaging the public with politics