Phone-hacking inquiry begins search for the facts

 

The Leveson inquiry into the British press may prove to be an easier beast to create than to stop, writes MARK HENNESSY

LORD JUSTICE Brian Leveson is a stickler for accuracy and has in his time been a frequent critic of the sensationalist headline, the inaccurate analysis, or the paragraph written to fit a political ideology rather than the facts.

Yesterday, he focused on accuracy, but of a personal nature: “My name is Brian Leveson. Although flattered that various politicians and members of the press have elevated me to the rank of peerage, I am not Lord Leveson: my judicial rank is that of a Lord Justice of Appeal.”

Leveson had gathered with his panel of experts in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, which is all but mid-way between the Houses of Parliament and the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, to announce details of his inquiry and to issue a call for evidence.

Few are likely to remain in doubt about Leveson’s place in the world for long, since he is now in charge of potentially the most significant inquiry into the media for generations in the UK – even if it is one whose remit is now so wide as to make its success far from guaranteed.

The inquiry’s terms of reference, first mooted by British prime minister David Cameron on July 13th, “grew very substantially” in the week afterwards, the judge pointed out, but the “time within which the initial report is to be delivered remained at 12 months”.

Initially, the inquiry was intended to cover practices and ethics in the British press, but this widened to cover broadcasting and social media as the News of the Worldcrisis mushroomed and Cameron struggled to get back in control of the situation.

Leveson has already faced the media’s bite after much – ridiculously too much – was made of the fact that he attended two social functions at the home of PR man Matthew Freud, one of London’s best-connected people, but also the husband of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Declaring his own interests, Leveson said he and his team had been chosen because they knew the law, the press, regulation and governance: “It is inevitable, therefore, that there are such contacts or links and there should be no apology for this.”

His distinguished experts also declared their interests, including former Daily Telegraphpolitical editor George Jones, who dryly pointed out that “my services were dispensed with by the then editor Will Lewis” after the paper was bought by the billionaire Barclay brothers.

Lewis is now a senior News International executive, one of a small few in charge of the company’s fire-fighting campaign, and one who is certain to be called to give evidence under oath to Leveson in the autumn.

Leveson said his inquiry would look at “the culture, practices and ethics of the press” in its relationship with the public, the police and politicians. It would then determine what recommendations, if any, could be made about future regulation, governance and oversight.

Faced with a 12-month deadline, Leveson clearly intends to be thorough: “I recognise the vital importance of reaching a number of conclusions within that broad timeframe and I will strive to do so, but not at all cost.”

The British media, he said, faced a choice: “It may be tempting for a number of people to close ranks and suggest that the problem is, or was, local to a group of journalists then operating at the News of the World, but I would encourage all to take a wider picture of the public good and help me grapple with the width and depth of the problem.”

The inquiry, he said, had been created “in no small part” because of the actions of journalists who “had devoted many years of attention to the criminal, unethical and utterly inappropriate behaviour of small sections of the press”.

He could, he said, “require” journalists to provide him with their files “but, at this stage, I would rather invite editors, proprietors of magazines and journalists” to provide “a wide range of examples of what is contended to be inappropriate for one reason or another across the fullest range of titles”.