What’s on the menu today? Grilled Murdoch, anyone, or possibly Brooks a la mode? Today sees the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport subject NewsCorps’ Gruesome Threesome to questions about phone hacking, bribery of policemen and other day-to-day aspects of modern journalism. Speculation is rife, both in terms of what questions will be asked and what answers will be given, but Tom Watson, a Labour member of the Committee, has stressed that they should be seeking facts, rather than posturing and point-scoring in public – a good tip for interviewers everywhere!
In the light of Rebekah Brooks’ arrest on Sunday, there has been speculation that it was deliberately done so that she could refuse to answer the Select Committee’s questions, on the grounds that she might incriminate herself by doing so. By and large, I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories like this and I suspect that she was only arrested because – belatedly – the Metropolitan Police have started doing their job properly. However, this all set me wondering about where Brooks stands in relation to the agreement that she must, presumably, have reached with NewsCorp. It’s normal, in situations like this, for a termination to be subject to the signing of a compromise agreement, which sets out the various arrangements put in place, including the value of any termination payment (reputedly more than £3 million, in Brooks’ case) and other compensatory arrangements. Once the parties are all agreed, and the departing employee has taken legal advice about the effects of signing the agreement, it’s a done deal and – except in very unusual circumstances – it’s impossible for the employee to sue the employer in connection with his or her sacking.
It’s also normal for both parties to agree not to defame one another and not to disclose any confidential information, which you might think would be very useful for the Murdochs when their former trusty lieutenant is about to be questioned by Parliament, alongside them. However, as they will no doubt have been told, the authority of Parliament (or, indeed, any legal proceedings or investigation) over-rides any commitment made in a civil legal agreement, so if Rebekah Brooks has beans to spill, she will do so if she respects the Law and Parliament – or, indeed, if she has any sense.
There’s a general belief that getting a departing employee to sign a compromise agreement closes off any future problems from that person, but it’s a bit of a cosy delusion. In 99% of cases you will hear nothing more from them but, if they are aware of wrong-doing in your organisation, or are suffering from what the legal profession refers to as a “latent industrial industry”, they may return to haunt you. The best defence against this is to do no wrong in the first place, but it’s a bit late for that in the case of NewsCorp.