When a media mogul has more power than government

Oh my. Democracy is so threatened that some have become fearful of a former Australian media man who trades smears for a living:

Senior parliamentarians declined to give evidence in court against a News of the World journalist for fear of upsetting News International, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats said today.

Simon Hughes, whose phone was hacked by an investigator on behalf of the NoW, told the Commons that other MPs declined to join him in the witness box in 2006 out of fear.

“I have absolutely no doubt that some people were not willing to give evidence because they were afraid,” Hughes said. “They were afraid of going into the public domain to take on people working either directly or indirectly for one of our land’s major newspapers.”

It is understood that his remarks apply to at least one former cabinet minister. The evidence from Hughes in 2006 helped convict Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by the NoW, and its former royal editor Clive Goodman.

The warning from Hughes was echoed by Tom Watson, a Labour member of the Commons culture select committee, who said that MPs were scared of senior News International figures such as its chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

Speaking in a Commons debate, in which MPs agreed to refer the phone-hacking scandal to the powerful standards and privileges committee, Watson said: “The truth is that, in this House we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of this world.

“It is almost laughable that we sit here in parliament, the central institution of our sacred democracy – among us are some of the most powerful people in the land – yet we are scared of the power that Rebekah Brooks wields without a jot of responsibility or accountability.

“The barons of the media, with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators; they are untouchable. They laugh at the law; they sneer at parliament. They have the power to hurt us, and they do, with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality. Prime ministers quail before them, and that is how they like it. That, indeed, has become how they insist upon it, and we are powerless in the face of them. We are afraid. If we oppose this motion, it is to our shame.”

And the big man didn’t escape criticism (something almost unimaginable in Australia, such is the cowardly behaviour of parliamentarians):

Rupert Murdoch found himself under fire for the first time in the phone-hacking scandal today when his judgment was called into question during a parliamentary debate.

As Conservative MPs raised concerns about News International, Murdoch was criticised for promoting Rebekah Brooks after she admitted illegal payments were made to police by the News of the World.

Labour MPs used parliamentary privilege in the commons debate to criticise the chairman and CEO of News Corporation, which owns the newspaper publisher, and his senior executives, who are battling claims that the NoW endorsed the illegal hacking of mobile phones.

Tom Watson, a Labour member of the Commons culture select committee, placed Murdoch in the line of fire by accusing him of appointing Brooks as chief executive of News International knowing that she had admitted that illegal payments had been made to police.

The former minister cited evidence by Brooks to the culture committee in 2003 in which she admitted that the News of the World had paid police officers in the past for stories. This was condemned by the committee and by the Met as illegal.

“When Murdoch appointed Brooks he did so in that knowledge,” Watson said of the ruling from the Commons committee. Les Hinton, then chair of News International, later told the committee that Brooks subsequently told him she had “not authorised payments to policemen”; he said her evidence was meant to suggest “there had been payments in the past”.