This was the first week of Leveson proper. It was the week of opening statements by Counsel to the Inquiry and core participants. On Monday Robert Jay QC provided an overview of the Inquiry’s purposes and concerns. On Tuesday, it was the turn of News International. It stated it could not guarantee the paper had stopped phone hacking after the arrest of Clive Goodman in 2007.
Rhodri Davies QC (pictured), representing News International, told Lord Justice Leveson he was “not going to give any guarantees that there was no phone hacking by or for the News of the World after 2007.” He went on to say:
“No doubt that will be explored during the evidence, and we note that Mr Jay said the police thought the last instance was in 2009. Nonetheless it does look as if lessons were learned when Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire went to jail. If phone hacking continued after that it was not, as it appears, what Mr Jay described as the ‘thriving cottage industry’ which existed beforehand.”
Associated Newspapers’ counsel Jonathan Caplan QC accused politicians of having an agenda for setting up the Inquiry:
“The rumour mill is that other journalists, working for other proprietors, may also have acted unethically or illegally, and the flames have been fanned to some extent by politicians, perhaps because of their own agenda of holding the press to account for so comprehensively exposing the scandal of parliamentary expenses.”
Caplan pointed out to the Inquiry that the investigation of the files of private investigator Steve Whittamore provided no evidence that Associated Newspapers had asked Whittamore to do anything illegal. He said:
“The activity which Stephen Whittamore was hired to undertake almost a decade ago was primarily to obtain addresses and telephone numbers, most of which – not all of which, but most of which – could legally have been obtained if the individual had had the time to research it.”
“His assistance was required, as far as Associated journalists were concerned, to help trace people quickly, usually to verify facts or to comment on stories that were written or were in progress prior to publication.”
He said no journalist had ever been charged for obtaining information through Whittamore, and that there is no evidence that he had ever been asked to do anything illegal or that it was known he might be illegally accessing databases.
Caplan also repeated Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s call for a regulator with an ombudsman to the Inquiry, and was challenged by Lord Justice Leveson who pointed out that in order to compel newspapers to join the regulator new legislation would be necessary.
On Wednesday morning the opening statement was by Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ. In considering the culture of the press and the idea that editors were blissfully ignorant of unscrupulous practices she said that:
“To imagine editors as mere bystanders whose underling reporters run rings around them would be fanciful in the extreme. That’s why, to anyone with any journalistic nous, the peddling of the line that hacking was the action of a single rogue reporter operating in splendid isolation was as daft as it was unbelievable.”
“At the heart of any newspaper culture is the editor. What he or she says goes. For anyone who’s worked in a newsroom, the concept of an editor who didn’t know just what their troops were getting up to is laughable. Editors rule the roost. They set the tone, not just in the editorial line of their newspapers but in the way that the entire newsroom operates.”
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, also made an opening statement in which he discussed phone hacking within the context of contemporary pressures on newsrooms. He said:
“Editorially, the notion of journalism itself is being transformed. Until recently, a newspaper was something produced by a relatively small number of people in the know for a large number of people who weren’t in the know. Now virtually everyone has the capacity to publish and to inform themselves.
“What was once a one-way publishing process is now more responsive. Most editors are live to the potential benefits of harnessing the ability of others to contribute. They’re beginning to think: if we add what you know to what we know, we may end up with a fuller, better picture.”
Both these speakers picked up on a culture of bullying in the newsroom and called for the Inquiry to interview staff at the News of the World about it. They were also critical of the Press Complaints Commission, with Stanistreet calling it “little more than a self-serving gentlemen’s club” and Rusbridger stating that the Guardian was unsurprisingly unimpressed with the PCC’s handling of phone hacking.
Wednesday’s session also heard from David Sherborne, who is representing 51 victims of phone hacking and press intrusion.
Sherborne outlined some of the reasons for and examples of “a serious breakdown of trust in the important relationship between the press and public”. These included the deletion of messages in murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s voicemail, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive, the targeting of a phone given to Sara Payne by the News of the World, and the implication of phone hacking contributing to a suicide and a suicide attempt. In relation to the level of authorisation of these intrusions he asked whether:
“Can it really be sensibly argued that this is a simple case where checks and balances were not properly observed and that a handful of rogue journalists were allowed to run amok with the company chequebook? Or, rather, was such activity, the systematic and deliberate employment of unlawful methods, encouraged or condoned at higher positions in the newspaper for the purposes of obtaining stories about the private lives of individuals, the very lifeblood on which this newspaper prided itself?”
Next week, the Inquiry will hear its first witnesses – the victims. There are 18 witnesses on next week’s provisional list – beginning with Bob Dowler and ending with solicitor Mark Thomson. The star studded list includes includes 6 phone hacking claimants and three lawyers.
Laura Sandwell is a graduate of the University of East Anglia with a particular interest in public law.