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The Select Committee challenge

Giving evidence to a Select Committee can be a nerve-racking experience: probably the most direct examination of an individual’s ability to represent themselves and their organisation, an inquiry should be seen as a test of preparation more than anything else.

In July 2011, near the beginning of my career in public affairs, I found myself just feet away from one of those events which seeps into the public consciousness. I was sent along to cover the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee as they were questioned about phone-hacking.

The elder Murdoch spoke about this being the humblest day of his life. It did not need the intervention of the demonstrator with the custard pie to make him seem old and frail (although the only question I get asked was how close I was to the protest and his wife’s ferocious counter-attack). As journalists wrote at the time, the session was rather like getting a peep at the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.

The Murdochs’ appearance was a perfect example of how even the most powerful can be made to look small in the committee room. A bad appearance can cause irreparable damage to the reputation of corporates and individuals.

Although routinely described in the press as ‘an influential group of MPs’, the average select committee used to be confined to worthy comments on government strategy and the occasional cross-examination of a minister. Today, they are quasi courtrooms in which MPs can hold just about anyone to account.

This growth in profile is, in part, down to changes to the committee system. Making the position of Chair elected has allowed an MP to carve a role, voice and career for themselves. Chairs looking for re-election will also make sure their work gets noticed.

This has also meant that membership of the Committees has become more attractive to MPs. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s investigation to hacking made both Tom Watson and Louise Mensch much more visible figures in Parliament.

While most witnesses are probably hoping to escape without any media attention, Committee members increasingly take a very different approach. They want to make the most of their chance in the media spotlight, deliberately taking a more confrontational approach or working on a line of questioning or sound-bites which they hope will see them featured on TV news bulletins or in the newspapers.

As the list of committee victims over the past couple of years indicates, many organisations and individuals are have yet to adapt to this new enviromment. Some still arrive ill-prepared or seem not to take it as seriously as they should. Sadly for them, the media have not been so slow, and know the evidence sessions are nowadays as newsworthy as the final report.

In 2011, Andy Hayman, once Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, was described by members of the Home Affairs Select Committee as “more Clouseau than Columbo”. Hayman became angry when asked whether he had ever accepted a bribe from a journalist. The session, unsurprisingly, received great media attention, with journalists calling for Hayman to be given a sitcom following his “preposterous gurning and imbecile catchphrases”.

At the end of last year, sparks flew in the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee session with BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten who came into verbal disagreement with Tory MP Philip Davies. Patten’s tetchy reaction to questions over his day-to-day activity — “Do you want to know my toilet habits?” — provided a soundbite for the press and let them paint him as a man not in control of matters.

While no amount of preparation can guarantee a relaxed, uneventful hearing, when we at Portland work with prospective committee witnesses, we stress some simple rules. Be clear what you are trying to say, don’t lose your temper, don’t grandstand, and make sure you know what you are talking about. And if nobody ever talks about your appearance again, you have probably done a good job.

Lara Newman is an Account Executive at Portland, where she provides political communications support for clients including AB InBev and Google.