News: Leveson Inquiry, Week 23: Module three comes to an end – Natalie Peck

8 07 2012

Last week module three of the Leveson Inquiry – examining the press and politicians – came to an end as Lord Justice Leveson heard from MPs and journalists. Giles Crown, the solicitor for the Bowles family, gave evidence on the experience of the family dealing with press intrusion following the death of their young son Sebastian, in a coach crash earlier this year.

The Monday morning hearing began with a statement from Lord Justice Leveson on a Mail on Sunday article, which claimed he had made an “angry” phone call to the cabinet secretary over comments made by education secretary Michael Gove on the “chilling effect” of the inquiry Leveson said:

“It is absolutely correct that the press should be able to hold this inquiry, in general, and me, in particular to account… [but it is] arguable that what’s has happened is an example of an approach which seeks to convert any attempt to question the conduct of the press as an attack on free speech. For my part I will not be deterred from seeking to fulfil the terms of reference that gave been set for me.”

Gove had criticised the inquiry during a speech to the House of Commons Press Gallery in February. Leveson said he had phoned the cabinet secretary after David Cameron appeared to support Gove’s comments the following day.  The Chairman added:

“It seemed to me at the time (as, indeed, the Daily Mail of 18 June has now sought to suggest by saying that the Prime Minister was ‘defending’ Mr Gove) that the Prime Minister’s response was open to the interpretation that he was, indeed, agreeing with Mr Gove’s views. I also recognised that it was open to the interpretation that the Prime Minister was not saying that free speech was being chilled but only that ‘we do not want to see it chilled’. 

Of greater concern to me was the question whether what he had said was or had become the Government’s position in relation not just to the effects of the Inquiry, intended or otherwise, but also that that there was a danger that I (as a judge) had an interest in taking over as arbiter of what a free press should be, imposing either soft or hard regulation and that it was sufficient vigorously to uphold the laws and principles that are already in place while encouraging ‘the maximum of freedom of expression’.“

I recognised that the Prime Minister had said that it was right to set up the Inquiry, but I wanted to find out whether Mr Gove was speaking for the Government, whether it was thought that the very existence of the Inquiry was having a chilling effect on healthy vibrant journalism and whether the Government had effectively reached a settled view on any potential recommendations. Put shortly, I was concerned about the perception that the Inquiry was being undermined while it was taking place.”

He said the education secretary had been called to give evidence before the February speech but it was also important he had the chance to say more on his views to the inquiry in person.  He concluded

“I understand only too well the natural anxieties of editors, journalists and others of the dangers of a knee-jerk response to the events of last July. Whilst I continue to state my belief in a free press at every possible opportunity (and not a single witness has sought to suggest that healthy and vibrant journalism is not essential to our society) I also understand that on every day of the Inquiry, every exchange I have with a witness will be analysed and considered in order to reveal a hidden agenda. There is none.  No recommendations have been formulated or written; no conclusions have yet been reached.  Testing propositions is not any equivalent to the expression of views concluded or otherwise.”

Lord Justice Leveson’s comments can be read in full here.

The first witness of the day was Peter Riddell, formerly of the Times, who said the tension between journalists and politicians was inherent but was dangerous when mutual dependence is too great. He told the inquiry he had never seen a formal deal between political parties and proprietors but admitted politicians would be well aware of the views of Rupert Murdoch and other newspaper owners.  He added:

“The idea of a formal deal I never observed, anyway. What I observed was slightly jarring  – it was more social praising rather than anything specific.”

He went on to say editor and proprietors should treat the relationship more professionally and be more distant. He advocated the “Private Eye test” – meaning any contact between politicians and journalists could be easily defended if details were published in the satirical magazine.   On regulation, he added:

It is a competitive environment, young reporters want to get their stories in the paper, it is hard to get political stories in the paper compared with a few years ago, so the story is too good to check. It is that kind of culture, that is why I say it is very much how news operations are run, what political editors do, leading teams, that would make a change rather than specific rules. I am just sceptical about what the rules will actually do.”

Andrew Grice, the political editor of the Independent, said he knew several backbench MPs who were reluctant to become ministers because of the threat of press intrusion into their private lives and those of family members.   He added:

“I don’t regard myself as part of some cosy club at Westminster where we all have fun and the media are, so to speak, in it together with the politicians. Our job is to shine a light on some of the decisions that politicians don’t always want to talk about.”

He told the inquiry the industry accepted that things needed to change, following the exposure of unethical and illegal press practice, and said journalists are “ready to embrace those changes”.

Philip Webster, editor of the Times Online and former political editor of the paper, recommended newspapers provide an audit trail to back up the public interest of publishing stories involving subterfuge or other controversial techniques. He argued that a public interest defence written into law would benefit journalists carrying out legitimate investigations but was challenged by Lord Justice Leveson, who said newspapers would be able to construct defences on paper for “more trivial” exposes.

He told the inquiry he had helped organise News International receptions for politicians and those in the media, often with “high quality champagne and late-night bacon sandwiches” but denied certain individuals had been blacklisted and prevented from attending.

During the afternoon hearing, Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow accused Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers of targeting public individuals, calling the group “insidious”.  He said he believed the Mail and Mail on Sunday were “pernicious and, at times, mendacious” when reporting on the private lives of politicians and others in the public eye. He added the newspapers would “probably go after me” for speaking out.  He said:

“Somehow this culture sweeps through and is allowed to prevail, irrespective of the quality of the people who try to work there. And it doesn’t happen in broadcasting, and it is not just because we are regulated, it is because ewe don’t see it as any part of our news function.  Britain is made up mainly by people who live by the law, do their best – politicians, workers, people in the health service – these are the people make this country work and demonising them, exposing them for some frailty, I think that’s very destructive.”

Snow said he believed newspapers sometimes undermined and destroyed people who did not fit in with their interests and said he was “astonished” by allegations that some journalists had paid public officials for information.

In his written statement, the presenter said the relationship between Downing Street, the government, public bodies and the media had become more “stage managed” and called for an independent regulator to replace the PCC.  He said:

“The regulator needs to be proactive, it needs to be prepared to say, ‘Oi’ when they see some indiscretion going on, or some foul play… I think it should be about maintaining standards as much as anything else, and integrity, and if, for example, there has been some glaring failure, it would be interesting to know why. What is so shameful about being wrong? We are all human beings. Let’s admit it. There is nothing exceptional about an editor. Editors are human beings, they can apologise.”

He told the inquiry setting out recommendations for a new regulator would be a “terrible challenge” but said newspapers were better for regulation.

The inquiry also heard from Mail on Sunday political editor Simon Walters, who said the relationship between News International and the government got “much too close”.

He said the newspaper group had been treated to privileged information when New Labour were in government and claimed Downing Street would pick up the phone and “dictate an article in certain News International journals” in return for support over issues including the Iraq war. He defended his own contact with politicians, saying it was important to gather information from individuals, including politicians and officials. He said the Mail on Sunday had the balance “about right” when it came to reporting on the private lives of politicians in the paper.

On Tuesday morning, the inquiry heard from John Lloyd – Financial Times contributing editor and director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – who said journalists would be reluctant to accept stronger regulation and will not place ethics above being “servants to the news desk”. He said journalists have a “built-in aversion” to anything that infringes their right to behave “irresponsibly”.  He said:

“Nearly all newspaper people, not matter what part of the jungle they may live in, or make their living in, will have a kind of built-in aversion and a preference for a part of society which retains the right to be irresponsible.”

He later added: “There is this strong underpinning in the newspaper industry of a dislike of being marshalled into the same kind of more responsible corrals into which other professions are accustomed to work.”  Lloyd told the inquiry editors often refuse to give talks at the Reuters Institute because it would be a “talk to the death”.

He discussed the financial state of the industry with Lord Justice Leveson, who said it was concerning proprietors were mainly interested in profit and a “race to the bottom” to publish salacious stories.  Lloyd replied: “The trend in newspapers which are increasingly cash-strapped does tend towards commentary and light journalism. I think the trend towards commentary of various kinds will continue.”

He later said a future regulatory body should attempt to settle privacy and libel claims before the courts, and called for equal prominence for corrections and clarifications.

Tim Colbourne, Nick Clegg’s special adviser, denied offering strategic advice to News Corporation over the BSkyB bid. He contradicted an email sent to James Murdoch by Michel on December 2, 2010. The lobbyist told colleagues Colbourne had insisted on the need for the company to meet with Vince Cable once the Ofcom report on the bid was published, and had said it was important to have the support of the Labour Party.  He told the inquiry:

“I have to say I have no particular insight into the thoughts and workings of the Labour Party on this and most other matters. But in this case I suspect that a passing reference has been over interpreted and exaggerated, and Mr Michel’s record doesn’t reflect the conversation which took place.”

The special adviser said an email from Michel in November 2010, asking for a meeting, had come “out of the blue” but was not surprised the lobbyist wanted to talk to him about the bid. He said he would not have agreed to the meeting if he knew the bid would be on the agenda, and initially the pair had talked about the Digital Economy Act.

Michel followed up the December meeting with an email five days later, telling Colbourne: “Don’t hesitate to let me know if there is anything I can do to help Nick in the coming weeks. We should keep in contact regularly going forward.”   Colbourne added:

“For the record I don’t think it is the role of special advisers to insist that ministers should meet with people they are not inclined to meet.  I personally think the level of advice and guidance which is given to special advisers is minimum, that a lot could be done to improve it. I recall that when I was employed I was given a copy of the code of conduct together with my contract but there was no more detailed guidance.”

The inquiry then heard from Giles Crown, the solicitor for the family of Sebastian Bowles, a 11-year-old boy killed in a Swiss coach crash in March this year, who gave evidence on media intrusion following the accident. Crown is also a friend of the family.

Lord Justice Leveson said he was “slightly concerned” the PCC had asked Crown to draft the letter – asking newspapers to remove pictures of Sebastian’s young sister from online articles and respect the privacy of the grieving family – instead of sending notifications themselves. The letter was later circulated by Crown and the PCC.

The inquiry heard how a picture of Helena Bowles, then eight, was used by several newspapers along with photographs taken from father Edward Bowles’s Facebook account. A picture of Sebastian posted on a blog, set up to allow children on the Swiss school trip to communicate with family members, was also printed in the Daily Mail, Telegraph and the Sun. Crown made it clear the Bowles family were not approached and would not have given permission for the material to be published.  Crown told the inquiry:

“I think probably [the PCC’s] circulation of the letter to whoever they did circulate it to may have been helpful in dampening down the media issues… I was calling them to try and help but there was a lot of damage already done. The pictures had already been published. The main point to my mind is why clear code provisions hadn’t been applied to by the media.”

Carine Patry Hoskins, junior inquiry counsel, read in full the last paragraph of Crown’s written statement at the request of Lord Justice Leveson.  It said:

Edward and his family are not public figures but have through personal tragedy been caught up in a public event. The Bowles family have not made and will not be making any public statement to the media in relation to these matters. Their agreement to provide this evidence to the inquiry in no way should be taken as waiving their right to privacy or their desire to be left alone by the media to continue to grieve over their son’s tragic and untimely death.”

Crown said the picture of Helena Bowles, taken while the family was gathering at a hotel with other families of victims of the crash, seemed to have been taken at a distance.  He added:

“They, to my mind, knew that the photograph was of a young relative of a victim, on its face it is clearly a grieving young child at that hotel so clearly must have been a relative of the victim.”

Crown said he had been in contact with Associated Newspapers in order to have material removed from the Mail Online, including the photograph of Helena – which he referenced in the letter sent to editors including Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre. Patry Hoskins said a letter had been sent to Crown last night, saying the newspaper group was unaware the Bowles’s daughter was the girl in the photograph and had removed it from the website.  Crown added:

“[Associated] say they were told it was someone standing in a public place the other side of the road from the hotel. I can’t say any more on the circumstances in which that photograph was taken and certainly Edward’s evidence is that it was on hotel property and there were steps taken to shield the families of the victims from the photographers. They then said that they had no reason to believe the photographs had not been taken in a public place or that relatives did not wish to be observed and photographed, to which I would – you known, the photographs speak for themselves and I find it surprising that they make that assertion.”

Jonathan Caplan QC, for Associated, said: “I do apologise to the family but my clients did not appreciate that was her, it would have been taken down earlier.”

The inquiry also heard Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher had spoken to Crown on the phone shortly after the PCC letter was circulated, allegedly telling the lawyer he was “late to the party” and he personally knew Edward Bowles, a senior banker. Bowles has denied speaking to Gallagher but said they had moved in the same social circles.  Crown said the family were “disappointed” that the media did not exercise greater restraint when reporting the death of their son, the only British victim of the tragedy.

During the afternoon hearing, Liberal Democrat minister Norman Lamb told the inquiry News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel made “veiled threats” to the coalition over the BSkyB bid. The minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs said he met with Michel at Portcullis House in June and October 2010. He said Michel claimed News International titles would turn against the coalition, and not support the government’s AV campaign, if business secretary Vince Cable referred the BSkyB bid to broadcast regulator Ofcom.

In May, Cable told the inquiry he heard from colleagues “veiled threats” had been made against the party if he made the wrong decision from News Corp’s perspective.  He added: “I think somebody used the phrase ‘done over’ in the News International press, and I took those things seriously, I was very concerned.”

The inquiry was shown a handwritten note made by Lamb days after the October 27 meeting, in which he referred to the meeting as “extraordinary”.  It read:

“0900 meeting Fred Michel News International. An extraordinary encounter. FM is very charming. He tells me News Int papers will land on VC’s desk in next 2 weeks. They are certain there are no grounds for referral. They realise the political pressures. He wants things to run smoothly. They have been supportive of coalition. But if it goes the wrong way he is worried about the implications.  It was brazen. VC refers case to Ofcom – they turn nasty. Then he talked about AV – how Sun might help the debate – use of good graphics to get across case. James M has met Nick – worth working on him to he could be receptive to case. Times will give it fair hearing.  So refer case and implication was clear. News Int turn against coalition and AV.”

Lamb added:

“I left that meeting with a very clear understanding that they had tried to be helpful in the period since the election through their newspapers, but that if things went the wrong way in terms of the actions that Vince Cable took exercising his responsibility then he was concerned that things could change, and I took that to mean very clearly that the positive coverage that they had – he said they had given might change.”

Lamb said he discussed the conversation with Nick Clegg on November 2, 2010, and said in another note made at the time the deputy prime minister had been “horrified” that the party would lose News International support.

Lamb said he found Michel – News Corp’s director of public affairs for Europe – “charming” during the first meeting on June 10 but had no recollection of the matters discussed, admitting the BSkyB bid may have been raised. The meeting took place five days before News Corp officially announced the intention to acquire the remaining BSkyB shares.

Michel told the inquiry in May he was only aware the bid would be launched the day before the official announcement, but was aware it was the intention of News Corp to acquire the remaining shares.  He added:

“I think my role was to represent, as best as I could, our arguments for why this bid was strong – had a strong case, and to make representations across all political parties as much as I could.”

Asked by Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, why he had waited to come forward with the story, Lamb said he had decided to give evidence after Vince Cable’s appearance at the inquiry. He said he had only just found the handwritten note after texting his wife, asking her to look through his papers.

Rhodri Davies QC, representing News International, said Michel stood by his position he made no threats to any politicians over the bid. Lord Justice Leveson said the lobbyist could reply to the allegations in writing.

Former cabinet minister David Mellor said the exposure of his private live was a “small price to pay” for press freedom. Mellor – secretary of state for national heritage under John Major – resigned in 1992 shortly after his affair with actress Antonia de Sancha was reported in the Sun. The politician said details about the relationship had been “cooked up” by publicist Max Clifford and deputy editor Stuart Higgins. He told the inquiry it was an “inconvenient moment for one’s private life to fall out of the cupboard” as he called for a second Calcutt report into press practice the same year.

He went on to blame the British public for demanding salacious stories about public figures, but said politicians should expect to have their private lives investigated by the press. He said:

“We can’t go on with the press fouling it’s own nest by being incapable of behaving appropriately in relation to their desperate desire to feed the British public’s equally desperate desire for gossip.”

 He later added:

“The press is not running a morality patrol to cleanse public life. The press are running a morality patrol for their own squalid reasons about their circulation. It is a question of trying to draw a line and a little bit of scalpel-like surgery rather than a bludgeon to try and keep the best of the freedom of the press.”

Mellor said former prime minister Margaret Thatcher saw Rupert Murdoch as a “kindred spirit” and criticised the proprietor for not buying in to British society while his newspapers have influence over the country.  He added:

“Why would someone like Tony Blair fly to the middle of Australia to address a group of Murdoch executives if it wasn’t a sign on his part that he needed the support of Mr Murdoch… Why did Murdoch exercise this overt power over leading politicians and force them to go to tedious conferences they didn’t need? Because he could.”

Mellor, who coined the phrase “the press – the popular press – is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon”, said future regulation should ensure the press lives up to the standards it expects others to conform to. He criticised the Press Complaints Commission and said proprietors must be compelled to join up to a future body.

The final witness Jillian Brady, a lawyer acting for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, confirmed a staff member leaked celebrity flight details to a paparazzi agency.  She said the individual, unnamed during the hearing, had admitted passing information to picture agency Big Pictures after denying the allegation. The scandal was first reported in theGuardian in April, and later industry publication Press Gazette. Both are said to have received legal threats from the agency since publishing articles on the matter.

The company confirmed on April 5 the data – including flight details of actress Sienna Miller and footballer Ashley Cole – must have come from internal data and reported it to the Information Commissioner. The Guardian story was published the same day.

The employee was interviewed again on April 16 and confirmed she had written the emails to Big Pictures, having already resigned. Brady said the employee had deleted all the emails sent from her account and closed it down. Big Pictures have not responded to Virgin Atlantic on the matter.  In a written statement, Big Pictures UK chief executive Nigel Regan said:

“l am asked to give a full account of what occurred, and to answer a number of specific questions regarding the allegations made in The Guardian articles. For legal reasons I am not in a position to answer these.”

Guardian reporter Josh Halliday, who wrote the initial story, submitted emails from his source to the inquiry but refused to name the individual forwarding the information. One email sent to the Virgin employee said: “Just trying to sort you out some money with accounts”.

Lord Justice Leveson said the case was an important example of how an organisation separate from the press industry deals with leaking allegations. Brady said the company had investigated a team of people to find evidence to back up the claims.

Module four of the inquiry – looking at proposals for future regulation – will begin on Monday 9 July 2012.

Natalie Peck, is the web reporter for Hacked Off and a PhD researcher examining privacy law and public figures. She is @nataliepeck on Twitter.


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