Different Approach To Hearings On U.S. Side Of Pond

When the U.S. Congress holds an investigative hearing, count on members of Congress to preen and talk and get to a question and then interrupt the answer. As we saw this week when Rupert Murdoch and his son were questioned in the Parliament, the Brits have a very different style.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Police in Scotland now say they will investigate allegations of phone hacking by a newspaper in Rupert Murdoch's media empire. This week, Mr. Murdoch and his son James endured two and a half hours of questions by a committee at the British parliament. And now, speaking as he does, as a connoisseur of legislative hearings, NPR's Peter Overby has some reflections.

PETER OVERBY: Here in Washington, hearings are meant to be imposing. Members of Congress sit up high on a dais and look down on the witness. This committee room in the House of Commons is less formal - everyone was sitting at the same eye level - and there was no fanfare when the hearing got under way. James Murdoch, an executive in his father's company, asked if he and his father could make opening statements. The committee chairman, conservative John Whittingdale, said no.

JOHN WHITTINGDALE: We'd hope that all that you wish to say would come out during the course of questioning. If you feel that is not the case, then you can make a statement at the end.

OVERBY: Whittingdale announced that the hearing was starting. He summed up the scandal, thanked the Murdochs for coming, and got down to business.

WHITTINGDALE: Perhaps I might start with Mr. James Murdoch. You made a statement...

OVERBY: Total time to the first question: about 90 seconds.

Now back to our side of the pond, a House subcommittee had an especially high-profile hearing in May. Hearings have titles now, and this one was called Who's Watching the Watchmen: Oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Subcommittee chairman Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, began with a little ritual.

Representative PATRICK MCHENRY: We make it a policy here on the Financial Ser-- on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to read our mission statement.

OVERBY: After that...

MCHENRY: I now recognize myself for four minutes for an opening statement. Today's oversight hearing underscores the role of the United States...

OVERBY: Then ranking Democrat Michael Quigley of Illinois got four minutes for his opening statement. And then, the witness, the temporary chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren. She got five minutes.

Dr. ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you for inviting me here today and I look forward to your questions.

MCHENRY: Thank you, Ms. Warren. Thank you for your testimony. And I recognize myself for five minutes.

OVERBY: And here, after McHenry, Quigley and Warren had all had their say, McHenry finally threw out the first question. Now an important note: The British hearing involved actual crimes; nobody was sticking up for the Murdochs. The American hearing wasn't about fact-finding. Like the rest of Capitol Hill, everyone was looking for a fight.

So McHenry's first question to Warren: Would she accept a presidential recess appointment to head the bureau? Doing so would dodge a Senate confirmation vote.

MCHENRY: Yes or no would be fine.

WARREN: Here we go. Congressman...

MCHENRY: Yes or no would be fine.

WARREN: ...it is up to the president of the United States, under Dodd-Frank, to make a nomination. It would not be...

MCHENRY: Thank you.

WARREN: ...appropriate, I think, for anyone to be speculating about that.

MCHENRY: Okay. As assistant to the president for Consumer Financial Protection, you're advising the president...

OVERBY: That set the tone for the afternoon - angry.

Now let's jump back to London. Labor member Tom Watson walked Rupert Murdoch through a series of questions about the company's claim of zero tolerance toward wrongdoing by employees. On this scandal, Watson has been one of the toughest questioners.

TOM WATSON: Did you still believe it to be true when you made your Thatcher speech, and you said, Let me be clear: We will vigorously pursue the truth and we will not tolerate wrongdoing?

RUPERT MURDOCH: Yes.

WATSON: So if you were not lying then, somebody lied to you. Who was it?

MURDOCH: I don't know.

OVERBY: No exactly a Capitol Hill kind of tough.

When Chairman McHenry accused Warren of leaving before they were finished with her, she got mad.

WARREN: We had an agreement for the time this hearing would have occurred.

MCHENRY: You're making this up.

WARREN: You asked that...

MCHENRY: You're simply - this is not the case. This is not the case.

OVERBY: Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings stepped in.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Mr. Chairman, you just did something that I - I am trying to be cordial here. But you just accused the lady of lying.

MCHENRY: She is accusing me of making an agreement that I never made.

CUMMINGS: I think you need to clear this up with your staff.

OVERBY: Certainly most hearings on Capitol Hill don't end anything like this. And it's also true that the British hearing was punctuated by a shaving cream pie aimed at Rupert Murdoch - although it didn't come from an elected lawmaker.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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