Watching the Leveson Inquiry, we’ve become used to a variety of public figures taking the stand to either attack and defend the established media. Some fare better than others but all of them have spent a great deal of time in preparation before they give their evidence. Why? The reason is that they know that they will be questioned by a master of the craft of cross-examination: Robert Jay QC. Of all the stars who have been paraded in this very public performance, he’s been the unexpected star of the occasion. Apparently he has received many thousands of marriage requests, from women who would love to love a man who is intellectually capable, strong willed, handsome, calm under pressure and has a decent job. The proposers don’t seem to mind that he already wears a wedding ring.
Yesterday the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee heard evidence from Bob Diamond, the recently resigned Chief Executive of Barclays, in relation to the scandal of his bank having colluded with others to fix the LIBOR interest rates. The Treasury Select Committee is one of the most powerful of all the Parliamentary Committees, due to the subject matters in its general remit. Therefore, you’d expect it to attract the best brains in the House of Commons. Yesterday’s issue revolved around whether Barclays manipulated inter-bank lending rates, which are supposed to be a product of market forces. It’s a very serious matter and this was the first occasion that the public could hear the man with the most responsibility for it being questioned. Here’s what we got to see.
That’s a statement, not an answer to a question. When people appear in court or before an inquiry, they give a written statement and then they answer questions. They aren’t allowed to take control of the event like this. There’s no reason why Mr Diamond should be allowed to make a speech like this in answer to a simple question. The issue here is control. The Treasury Committee has a witness before it but seems unable to control him. The resulting dire quality of the cross-examination subverts the event into a successful public relations exercise for Barclays. Instead of the Treasury Committee properly examining the issues, it descended into grandstanding. The MPs themselves seemed more concerned with competing for public attention than getting at the truth. Labour MP John Mann won that competition and got himself on the news by asking the following whether Bob Diamond knew the founding principles of the Quakers who set up Barclays and then declaring, “Well I can tell you and tattoo them on your knuckles!“
This might make for good TV and radio coverage but it isn’t much use for uncovering new information. The problem lies in the fact that the MPs are not skilled in the art of cross-examination. Their expertise lies in grabbing publicity and winning political arguments. When in court, even top politicians employ barristers to ask the questions for them. Barristers and other specialist advocates are removed from the inconvenience of having to face elections. The barristers at the top of their trade have years of experience of dealing with sophisticated and well resourced people whose motivation is to hide the awkward truths. Perhaps Bob Diamond isn’t one of those. Perhaps he is. We’ll never know so long as the only scrutiny we subject him to is the incompetent cross-examination by our Members of Parliament.
Yesterday’s session left more questions than we received answers to. Last night and this morning, the media is ablaze with those questions. Chief among them was which Whitehall officials Mr Diamond referred to? The whole thing has turned into a political debate, rather than a matter of factual inquiry. Of course, the Treasury Committee can recall Mr Diamond and ask the questions it couldn’t manage first time around. Perhaps we’ll get there eventually. At best, it’s a grossly inefficient method of establishing evidence.
The obvious solution is for the Parliamentary Committees to abandon their present method of operation. They should employ senior counsel to ask the questions for them. They could instruct the barrister to ask specific questions. They’d do better to instruct him to attempt to uncover the factual strata underneath the key issues and let him get on with their job. They could still make public statements to the media and grab all the attention their political hearts need but we’d then be in possession of a more detailed grasp of the facts. Witnesses due to appear before such reconstituted Parliamentary Committees would be much more concerned to be honest because they would know that the questions would leave no room for waffling answers. Everyone would benefit. Parliamentarians would get to the truth of complex situations quicker. The public would be better informed about the sometimes difficult issues that lie behind political debate. Marriage seekers would get a bigger panel of candidates to choose from. Some of them might actually be available, too.