In Week 6 of the evidence hearings the Leveson Inquiry began to hear evidence from the press. The first week was devoted to the “Sun”, the “Financial Times”, the “Independent”, the “Mail” (with Paul Dacre saved up for later) and the “Express”. The highlight of the week was the evidence of Richard Desmond, prorietor of the Express newspapers who made a strong, albeit inadvertent, case for statutory press regulation.
At the outset of the hearing, Lord Justice Leveson made it clear that he received a cuttings service about the Inquiry – including “Private Eye”. He said that he was minded to put this material into the record as itself evidence of the culture and standards of the press.
Monday 9 January 2012 was the day for the “Sun”. In the morning session, the first witness was Kelvin Mackenzie, editor of the paper from 1981 to 1994. He explained his approach as editor “if it sounded right, it probably right and therefore we should lob it in“. He went on to discuss the Guardian correction over the Milly Dowler voicemail deletion story, saying the Sun would be “very, very, very close” to being shut down had they got any details wrong. Mr Mackenzie asked about evidence submitted by Anne Diamond, who told the inquiry she had been left devastated after the paper published a photograph taken at the funeral of her baby son in 1999. He answered: “Why on earth should everyone accept her version of events and not accept my version of events?” His witness statement echoed his disdain for the inquiry, expressed in the Leveson seminars last year:
“The dictionary definition of ethics is; the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and the rules and principles that ought to govern it. They were not issues I bothered with. I do hope that this inquiry is not seeking to impose them on print journalism – that would be bloody funny to watch.”
After Mr Mackenzie’s evidence, the Inquiry heard from a number of current employees of the “Sun”. As Michael White put it in his report in the “Guardian”
“The contrast with what followed MacKenzie’s 50-minute session was stark and meant to be so. A succession of current Sun staffers, including the editor, Dominic Mohan, a posh legal adviser called Justin, and the paper’s really nice picture editor, painted a picture of the scholarly and ethical way the paper now handles sensitive matters like intrusion, bribery and paparazzi pictures. Its philanthropic activities alone would put those hooligans at the FT to shame“.
The first of these witnesses was Gordon Smart, editor of the Sun’s Bizarre column, defended an article published by the paper last year, which described actor Hugh Grant rushing to hospital after a health scare. He told the inquiry that he considered the story to be in the public interest given that it occurred in a public place. When questioned further on Mr Grant’s celebrity status, Mr Smart admitted that this had “tipped the balance” in favour of publication. He was also questioned over fake stories submitted to the Sun by Chris Atkins, who gave evidence to Leveson last year. He said that a close personal relationship with the celebrities in question, Sarah Harding and Guy Ritchie, and confirmation from sources including agents led him to believe the stories were correct.
The Sun’s royal editor Duncan Larcombe was next to give evidence, who began by explaining his good relationship with both Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. He told the inquiry that he often refused pictures of members of the royal family, including one example where photographers had been taken from a camera belonging to Pippa Middleton, which had been stolen from her car. He said: “If we get royal stories wrong then readers may well be on the prince’s side rather than ours.”
The “Sun’s” picture editor John Edwards, gave several examples of refusing to use paparazzi pictures. Edwards described received photographs of a heavily pregnant Lily Allen shopping in London, and deciding not to run them after a discussion with the singer’s agent.
In the afternoon session, the Inquiry heard from Justin Walford, editorial legal counsel at News Group Newspapers, explained to the inquiry that “counsel can give advice; the editor can consider that advice or not consider that advice”. He claimed that things had “changed” at the Sun since Kelvin MacKenzie’s editorship and that the “lobbing in” of stories was no longer an issue. In answer to a question from Mr Jay QC he said that he could not think of an example where there was “a public interest in not pre-notifying” someone of story.
Last to give evidence was the Sun’s current editor and former showbiz journalist Dominic Mohan, who replaced Rebekah Brooks in 2009. He told the inquiry that he had observed the mistakes of his predecessors and tried to learn from them, and that he had become more cautious of publishing stories in light of the inquiry and the introduction of the Bribery Act. He was questioned over comments he had made during the 2002 Princess Margaret Awards, where he thanked event sponsor Vodafone’s “lack of security” for a series of showbiz exclusives in the Mirror. He said he had heard “industry rumours” about phone-hacking but said that the comments were a joke at the expense of the rival paper.
He was also criticised for a PCC correction referring to a front page splash appearing on page six of the Sun, despite his own assertion that front page corrections should always appear on page two of the paper. Mr Mohan also emphasised many of the Sun’s important campaigns, including ‘The Millies’ and Sunemployment, saying the paper had a strong moral compass. However, as Martin Moore pointed out in a post on this blog, a number of points concerning the “Sun” and the PCC were not explored in evidence.
In addition, witness statements were read to the inquiry from Stuart Higgins (Sun editor 1994-1998), Simon Toms (acting interim director of legal affairs at News International) and David Yelland (Sun editor 1998-2003).
On Tuesday it was the turn of the broadsheets. In the morning session, the first to give evidence was “Financial Times” editor Lionel Barber. He gave his views on the FT’s internal code of practice, as well as the PCC. He emphasised the need for a “credible and robust” system of press regulation and said the PCC code should be “enforced before it is substantially amended”. In his witness statement he said
“The aim of a journalist must be to supply the public with solid, reliable information and to gather that information in a professional manner.”
The next witness was the “Independent’”s managing editor Andrew Mullins, who addressed the inquiry briefly on the separation of commercial and editorial sides of the paper. Manish Malhotra, Independent finance director and company secretary for IPL also gave evidence on drafting the company’s new code of conduct in 2011.
The editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, had only been editing the paper for two days when allegations of Johann Hari’s plagiarism entered the public domain. He said that the journalist would return to the Independent in “four or five weeks” after and unpaid absence. Mr Hari has been in New York completing ethics training at prestigious universities Columbia and NYU and will resume his job as columnist but not conduct interviews. Mr Blackhurst described the “shock” felt by Independent staff over the plagiarism, and the revelation that Hari had assumed an online pseudonym in order to edit the Wikipedia profiles of his rivals. He went on to defend Hari, saying:
“He should have known what he was doing was wrong but nobody told him. In terms of plagiarism it wasn’t as stark and severe as the Jayson Blair case. He wasn’t fabricating hard news as far as I was aware.”
In the afternoon session the inquiry heard from Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, who said that Telegraph journalists “live” by the PCC code and that he was astonished by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. When discussing regulation with Mr MacLennan, Lord Justice Leveson revealed his feelings over press reform, which he had hinted at over the course of the day, saying: “I would be surprised if government regulation ever even entered my mind.” He repeated an earlier remark that the final report from the inquiry must be useful to the press and the public rather than something that everybody “likes or rubbishes and then “sits on a shelf”.
Telegraph finance director Finbarr Ronayne’s written statement revealed the cost of the MPs’ expenses computer disk to be £110,000. Will Lewis, former editor of the Telegraph, defended the story in his evidence, telling the inquiry:
“Ultimately I was obliged… to bring this profound wrongdoing at the heart of the House of Commons into the public domain…”
In his witness statement he elaborated on the transaction between the paper and a private investigator:
“A sum in the order of £150,000 (the precise figure can no doubt be obtained from TMG) was paid to John Wick in connection with the DT’s investigation into MPs’ expenses. Mr Wick could be described as a private investigator, although I believe he prefers to describe himself as an intelligence expert and security consultant (he has a background in the armed forces).”
Last to give evidence was Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher. He commented on the nature of public interest when in conflict with the private lives of MPs, giving the example of Chris Huhne’s wife allegedly taking driving penalty points for her husband. He also commented on the “chilling effect” of libel, and discussed with Leveson whether and “arbitral” system for resolving complaints would be suitable – and that future press regulation was likely to be independent.
The next day, Wednesday 11 January 2012, was “Mail” day. The “Daily Mail” editor, Paul Dacre, was notable for his absence. Counsel for the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC, told the Inquiry at the outset that he was unavailable but would be giving evidence on 6 February 2012.
The morning session began with evidence from Paul Silva, picture editor at the Daily Mail, appeared to give evidence on the paper’s use of paparazzi photographs. He was questioned over complaints made by Hugh Grant, that he and Tinglan Hong, the mother of his baby daughter, had been harassed by photographers. He told the inquiry the actor should have publicly issued a picture of the child to avoid being pursued by the press and interest in the birth was “normal”.
Mr Silva was asked about celebrities including Sandra Bullock and Sienna Miller, and said the Mail’s picture desk received 300-400 images of Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge, every day. He said the desk received over 300,000 images a day in total and explained the process of selection, also used by the Mail Online picture desk, in deciding whether photographs intrude on an individual’s privacy.
Mr Silva also commented on pictures taken of the McCann family outside their home in Leicestershire. He said paparazzi were continuing to photograph Madeline’s twin siblings in line with consent granted by the family in Portugal. He said “a change in culture” was responsible for increased checks on how pictures are obtained and added: “I always want to satisfy myself that they are taken in the proper way”.
The next witness was the “Mail on Sunday” editor Peter Wright. He was asked about the fact the paper had used Steve Whittamore following his arrest in 2003. In his witness statement Mr Wright said managing editor John Wellington was “rebuked” for misfiling invoices from “inquiry agents”:
“Early in 2004 we discovered from the Operation Motorman inquiry that we were regularly using the services of the inquiry agent, Steven Whittamore … We issued an instruction to all staff in February that year that inquiry agents were not to be used without clearance from department heads, who had to be satisfied that other means of obtaining information had been exhausted.”
The ICO report ‘What Price Privacy?’ showed 266 transactions for allegedly illegally-obtained information between Whittamore and the “Mail on Sunday”, who was commissioned by 33 journalists. Mr Whittamore continued to work for the paper until late 2004 and was paid a total of £20,000.
During the afternoon session, Liz Hartley, head of editorial legal at Associated News, gave evidence. She was heavily questioned over a statement issued by the company following Hugh Grant’s evidence to the inquiry in November 2011. She revealed Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was partly responsible for the statement accusing Mr Grant of “mendacious smears”.
Mr Grant had speculated that Associated News titles hacked his phone and obtained information about the birth of his daughter from a hospital source. Mrs Hartley told the inquiry that Associated News already had communication from Mr Grant on phone hacking when the Hacked Off campaign was launched in July 2011. He alleged that his voicemails had been hacked when the “Mail on Sunday” reported the breakdown of his relationship with Jemima Khan, after receiving phone calls from a “plummy-voiced woman”, in 2007. Mrs Hartley repeated the Mail on Sunday’s claimed that their source was a “freelance journalist who had been told by a source who was regularly speaking to Jemima Khan”. Khan flatly denied this on Twitter at the time and wrote: “The “source” close to me must be psychic. The MoS claim that he/she gave them a story I knew nothing about till it was in the paper”.
On Thursday 12 January 2012, the Inquiry heard evidence from “Express Group” witnesses. The highlight of the day, and indeed the week, was the appearance of owner Richard Desmond. He appeared alongside executives from Express Newspapers and the current editors of the Daily Star and Daily Express at the Leveson Inquiry.
The first witness in the morning session was Nicole Patterson, head of legal at Express Newspapers. She answered questions over the use of private investigator Steve Whittamore, and ran through a series of invoices paid to his company, J.J. Services. Patterson said Whittamore had been used 65 times by the Express and four times by the Star. It was revealed that the private investigator was contracted by the papers until 2010, despite being convicted of information theft in 2005.
Dawn Neesom, editor of the Daily Star, told the inquiry that some of her paper’s headlines had gone “too far”. This included a front-page story – “Terror as plane hits ash cloud” – which resulted in copies of the Star being removed from sale in airports. She was questioned over the paper’s alleged anti-Islamic agenda but said: “We are not biased against Muslims”. She described the Star as a “young tabloid” that relied on “eye catching” front pages to sell copies, and said the paper had a “certain style of writing which appeals to the readers”.
Daily Express editor Hugh Whittow claimed that the PCC could have stepped in over coverage of the McCanns, saying that the body “should have intervened”. He said it was one of the reasons why Northern & Shell pulled out of the PCC in 2011. Express Newspapers was ordered to pay £550,000 to the McCanns in 2008 after the Express and Star published libellous articles about the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. Mr Whittow said: “I regret what happened in the McCann case and all I can do is repeat the apology on page one for the hurt and distress we caused them”.
The afternoon session began with Peter Hill, former editor of the Express (known to readers of “Private Eye” as “Mentally” Hill). He told the inquiry that it was his decision to switch the paper to supporting the Conservative Party in 2005 and added that: “An enormous number of readers who had abandoned it in despair”. He denied being “obsessed with the McCann story”, dismissing claims made by former Express reporter Nick Fagge before the inquiry last year. He said: “It was nothing to do with an obsession, it was more to do with a method of working”. Mr Hill said the reporter had “misunderstood” the reasons why he repeatedly used the story, and that the paper had been reflecting the interest of the readers. He compared the coverage to articles about Big Brother and Princess Diana.
The next witness was Paul Ashford, the group editorial director of Northern & Shell. He said that he “found the behaviour of the PCC to be wholly hypocritical and unhelpful” in relation to the McCanns, and like Ms Neesom favoured a regulatory body with no serving editors.
The last witness of the day (and the week) was Express proprietor, Richard Desmond. He started his evidence by referring to a rival paper as “the Daily Malicious”, and describing it as “Britain’s worst enemy”. He later referred to Paul Dacre at “the fat butcher”. He went on to tell the inquiry that he didn’t know what the word “ethical meant” and said: “We do not talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line”. Mr Desmond also said he felt he had betrayed Tony Blair “as a mate” when the Express switched to supporting the Conservatives in 2004, but backed the decision of editor Peter Hill.
He described a meeting with Mr Blair after buying Express Newspapers in 2000 and the pair talked about “music and drums” before the then Prime Minster asked about politics, and said he took the decision to back Labour because Mr Blair “seemed a nice fellow”. He sought to defend Express and Star coverage of the McCanns by comparing rumours over Madeleine’s disappearance to conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana.
Mr Desmond apologised to the McCanns several times but said the PCC had scapegoated Express Newspapers over national coverage of the story, saying that if 38 articles had been labelled defamatory, then there 65 to 70 good ones. He said he would “get rid” of the inquiry, which he called ”probably the worst thing that’s happened to newspapers in my lifetime”. He described a new regulator called the “RCD board” to replace the PCC. When Leveson asked what this stood for, he said: “Richard Clive Desmond”. He took a negative view of regulation generally
“I think is free speech is very important and if get any more regulation — I mean, what are we trying to do in this country? Are we trying to kill the whole country with every bit of legislation and every bit of nonsense?”
Writing in the “Independent”, Ian Burrell described this as an “eccentric but mesmeric performance“, with Mr Desmond presenting “his unprocessed self”.
The “Guardian” suggested that, at the beginning of his evidence he was
“as nice an egomaniac as you could hope to meet, with no evidence of the foul temper and worse language of repute. It was only when he floated “speculation” that the royal family might have killed Diana (the Duke of Edinburgh is the Express’s No 1 suspect) and that the McCanns might have done the same to Madeleine that Desmond’s matey credibility fell off a cliff”.
The Inquiry also received statements from Robert Sanderson (group finance director at Northern & Shell), Gareth Morgan (editor of the Daily Star Sunday), Martin Ellice (joint managing director at Northern & Shell) and Martin Townsend (editor of the Sunday Express) are available on the inquiry website.
Next week the Inquiry will hear from Trinity Mirror on Monday 16 January 2012, the Times and the Guardian on Tuesday 17 January 2012 and on Wednesday 19 January 2012 from Magazine Editors and Regional Editors.
This post has been based on the useful and informative daily “Round ups” produced for the News Section of the Hacked Off website by Hacked Off web reporter Natalie Peck. We thank Hacked Off for the use of this material.