The long-awaited appearance of Inquiry Chairman Sir Brian Leveson at the Culture Select Committee was limited in scope but the judge’s messages were as clear and resolute as they were the day he published his report nearly a year ago.
Despite the best efforts of some members of the committee to muddy the waters, lead him down meandering blind alleys or subject him to (embarrassingly amateur) cross-questioning, Sir Brian declined to comment directly on the political process which followed publication of the Inquiry report, or other cases which were incidental to his investigation.
To do so, he said, would be wrong for a number of reasons: First, as a matter of principle, it would be wrong for a member of the independent judiciary to get drawn into political controversy. He revealed that the Lord Chief Justice had written to the Committee chair, John Whittingdale, when Leveson had first been invited to give evidence, saying, “I am extremely concerned that a judge should not be asked to comment on matters in the political sphere.”
Second, Sir Brian had not taken evidence on or given detailed consideration to the cross-party charter or other events which followed the inquiry. “It is up to you (the parliamentarians) to decide what to do with the report”, he said repeatedly, echoing his view from November that his work was done, and the ball was now in the politicians’ court. It would be unfair on interested parties if he were to opine on matters in which he had seen no evidence.
However, he did feel able to comment on a problem faced by those who want to see his carefully designed package of modest reform implemented. He expressed dismay at the way in which his recommendations had been wilfully distorted by sections of the media. “I am very frustrated at the inaccurate representation of my report,” he told MPs, pointing out on more than one occasion that he “did not recommend any form of statutory regulation of the press.”
One wry remark caught the attention of those who have been following the story for the past twelve months. If MPs wanted to find out his views, they had only to read his report, which was “not bonkers”. This was a reference to the comment given by David Cameron to victims, in advance of publication, to implement Leveson’s reforms unless they were mad.
Another theme he returned to during the two-and-a-half hour session was the importance of the package working for victims and the public. “It’s got to work for those who feel, legitimately in my judgment, that they have been abused by the press”, he said, adding later, “it has to work for the press: it absolutely has to work for the public too.”
Whilst noting that no one who gave evidence to the inquiry suggested the idea of reforms being implemented by Royal Charter, he did venture to say that he stood by his recommendations “if those recommendations are implemented by Royal Charter,” implying at one point that he was “gratified” by the extent to which parliament’s charter gave legitimacy to his package.
Facing questions on the fears whipped up in the local and regional press that an arbitration system would pose unbearable burdens, Sir Brian pointed out that on the contrary, arbitration could work for the press, reducing their costs and encouraging vigorous investigative journalism. It was even recommended by one national newspaper editor during his inquiry for those reasons.
Towards the end of the session, Sir Brian was asked for his view on the monstering of Leveson assessor, former FT Chairman David Bell, by the Daily Mail, in the run up to the publication of the report. In contrast to the rather hesitant response of FT editor, Lionel Barber, who gave evidence to the committee before Summer recess, Leveson gave Bell his unreserved support, declaring that he had nothing but praise for a man who had carried out his work for the Inquiry with skill and dedication.
What little Sir Brian Leveson felt able to say, he expressed with certainty and precision and left no one watching in any doubt that he stood by his report and hoped for its speedy adoption.
David Hass is Director of Communications for Hacked Off