The House of Commons could jail News International executives for spying on MP Tom Watson in an attempt to block his investigation into phone hacking, an MP has warned.
Birmingham MP John Hemming (Lib Dem Yardley) said managers from the media organisation could be locked up for “contempt of Parliament” using powers which have not been exercised for more than 100 years.
News International executives are already facing the prospect of being reprimanded for misleading MPs, following the publication of a controversial report by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee into the phone hacking scandal.
The committee had investigated phone hacking at News International, which publishes The Times and The Sun and is owned by News Corporation, the company controlled by Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch.
It followed reports that journalists at The News of the World, the Sunday tabloid owned by News International until its closure last year, had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
The committee concluded that three News International executives – Les Hinton, Colin Myler, and Tom Crone – had misled it. The MPs announced plans to submit a motion to the Commons accusing the three men of being in “contempt of Parliament” and possibly recommending that they should be punished.
It also warned media mogul Rupert Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run a major international corporation, but this passage was added to the findings by Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the committee despite opposition from Conservatives.
Mr Hemming said he was concerned by claims that News International had placed members of the committee under surveillance in an attempt to intimidate them.
News International’s parent company News Corporation has told the committee that Black Country MP Tom Watson (Lab West Bromwich East), a high-profile campaigner against phone hacking and a member of the committee, was placed under surveillance in 2009. Private investigator Derek Webb was hired to spy on him.
And giving evidence to the inquiry last year, James Murdoch, son of Rupert and Deputy Chief Operating Officer of News Corporation, admitted: “I am aware of the case of the surveillance of Mr Watson; again, under the circumstances, I apologise unreservedly for that.
"It is not something that I would condone, it is not something that I had knowledge of and it is not something that has a place in the way we operate.”
Mr Watson was not aware he had been placed under surveillance at the time. But the Committee said in its report: “Surveillance could be construed as an attempt to interfere with the work of the Committee.
"Members may feel inhibited in the discharge of their functions if they are concerned that their private lives will be intruded upon as a result.”
Mr Hemming said the Commons could use its powers to imprison members of the public found to be in “contempt of Parliament”. They were traditionally held in St Stephen’s Clock Tower, commonly known as Big Ben.