Monday, July 18, 2011

Q&A: Lawyer Mark Stephens On The Key Issues As Rebekah Brooks, Rupert And James Murdoch Face Select Committee

Huffington Post UK Michael Rundle

First Posted: 18/7/11 11:51 GMT Updated: 18/7/11 13:10 GMT

Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are due to appear before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday over phone hacking and corruption allegations at News International.

Mark Stephens, a prominent media lawyer, told the Huffington Post UK what the trio will be able to say before the Media, Culture and Sport Select Committee, and the potential implications should the case escalate.

Q. How fully will Brooks and the Murdochs be able to answer tomorrow's questions?

Stephens: I think that, if they have nothing to hide, both the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will have no difficulty in answering the questions. The only time that they will have difficulty is if there is a tendency in the answer to incriminate, and if that were the case they would be well advised to say nothing.

Q. Does Brooks' arrest change what she can and can't say?

Stephens: I don't think that the arrest of Rebekah Brooks changes what she can say. It may make her more cautious about what she either wishes to say, or her lawyers advise her to say.

A more sensible approach by the police might have been to allow Brooks to go before the select committee and answer questions on a more wide-ranging basis, and only then call her in for an interview, because it would give them more statements with which to potentially impeach her for a previously inconsistent statement. Now she has a much stronger way of saying 'I'm sorry I can't answer that question because it would tend to incriminate me', or would be inappropriate in light of police inquiries.

Q. Is there a precedent for somebody appearing in front of a select committee so soon after being arrested?

Stephens: I don't think anyone has appeared in front of a Select Committee quite as quickly as this, but we have seen people who have been arrested appear before select committees. For example the Maxwell brothers did so, and it was a long drawn out and rather painful process because every question they had to refer to their lawyers. There was a lot of whispering and discussion and then an answer would come back, usually 'I can't answer that question'.

Q. If James Murdoch were to be arrested would that change how the committee may play out?

Stephens: I think it's idle to think that the Murdochs don't, or certainly James Murdoch doesn't, think that he's got difficulties in answering some of the questions. And as a result of that I think that he would probably be advised by his lawyers not to answer a number of the questions that are likely to be bowled at him tomorrow. I don't think that changes whether he's arrested or not. I think that it was always going to be the case that they were going to be pretty cautious about what they said to parliament, and reserving what they really had to say to the police and Judge Leveson.

Q. If Brooks or others were to be charged, would that change how the committees would proceed?

Stephens: I don't think it will change anything for tomorrow because they're not going to be charged before tomorrow. And at the moment there is not any evidence to suggest that Rupert Murdoch knew, and so he's not really in the frame. I suspect we're going to see a more robust performance from Rupert Murdoch than we are from perhaps from James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, who are likely to be a little more contrite.

Q. Who will the key examiners and members of the committee be tomorrow?

Stephens: Both the chairman of the committee John Whittingdale MP and Paul Farrelly MP, who is an ex-journalist. I think he's very realistic about what's going on in the world. But most of the select committee have been in-post and following this particular story and all its twists and turns for some considerable time, and I think they're going to be cross because I think they believe that they didn't get the full story when they last had people from News International before them. The line that they were given on that occasion was that it was 'just a couple of rotten apples'. What they now believe is that it was more systemic, and I think that they want an explanation as to why they were misled on the last occasion.

Q. What will the key questions be tomorrow?

Stephens: James Murdoch will undoubtedly be asked why he signed off on a settlement of a million pounds without having full information. Either he's a fool or he's a knave. Let's assume he's not a knave, in those circumstances I think shareholders in News International and News Corp are going to be troubled that someone in their business is signing off cheques for a million pounds without all the proper information, and I think that will probably do for James Murdoch in due course. We'll wait and see.

Q. Is it usual for witnesses at select committees to prepare their answers in advance?

Stephens: It's unusual to do trial preparation as perhaps it would be done in America. In America people go through mock cross-examination, they get jury feedback on how it plays that kind of thing. We don't do that in the United Kingdom. There is a degree of rehearsal going on, its been reported in the press, and there is absolutely nothing to stop people doing that, it's just unusual, and I think that when they come forward they will have anticipated most likely areas of cross-examination by the select committee and as a result will probably have a good set of answers for them.

Q. Could Brooks and others be extradited to the United States?

Stephens: If the American authorities believe a crime has been committed in America and they can make our a prima facie case, there are now expedited routes for extradition to the United States. In fact they are very one-sided. The Americans really only have to ask for somebody and they're sent off to America.

In those circumstances, particularly given the nationality of James Murdoch it seems likely that it wouldn't be difficult to get them there, should they want.

At the moment it's not clear that there is any evidence that a crime has been committed in America or that the Americans actually want them. There has been a bit of huffing and puffing, but I've seen absolutely no evidence whatsoever, not a scintilla or a shred, that there was hacking going on, whether into the victims of 9/11 or otherwise.

Q. What are the key differences between such committees in the United States and the United Kingdom?

Stephens: They are very different. It's unusual to have lawyers appear before select committees, and select committees want answers from the witnesses, although the witnesses are entitled to take advice. In America the select committee has its own legal team. Here in the UK we don't have that scenario so the MPs have to do the best they can. And of course they're not trained forensic cross-examiners, and so often the sort of cross-examination that takes place is much less robust and much less searching than it would be in America. That's merely down to the fact that whilst the members of parliament are doing their very best they aren't trained as forensic lawyers.

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