Press heavyweights come out fighting

As the Leveson Inquiry into the media gets into its stride, some leading editors have been giving the panel the benefit of their views. They have been anything but apologetic

Lord Justice Leveson has yet to formally start his inquiry. But fear of what his final report might do to Britain's largely unregulated press yesterday prompted an outbreak of pre-emption when Paul Dacre, the all-powerful editor of the Daily Mail, abandoned a life-time of keeping the state at bay by calling for an authorised ombudsman with powers to investigate and fine those responsible for press industry scandals.

It was a U-turn of such magnitude that the screeching sound of it will have been heard along the Thames at Wapping, the home of News International.

Playing the media prophet, middle England's self-appointed media conscience admitted the Press Complaints Commission, was "broken" and needed to be reformed "if it is to regain trust".

The Daily Mail, however, hasn't the patience to wait for the Leveson Report. Why not? According to Mr Dacre, the inquiry's panel of experts "don't have the faintest clue how mass-selling newspapers operate". His lack of faith in the inquiry was matched by questions over why it was set up in the first place.

If anyone expected an answer they didn't have long to wait. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, told them later that David Cameron's "obsessive arse kissing of Rupert Murdoch" was ultimately why they were all there.

On the fifth floor of the QE2 centre, which overlooks the Palace of Westminster, Mr Dacre asked if he was alone in "detecting the rank smell of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class's current moral indignation over a press that dared to expose their greed and corruption". So it was "yes" to an ombudsman, but "no" to going down without landing a few well-timed punches – aimed at 10 Downing Street.

Without naming the Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr Dacre hinted that everything was going well until a few weeks ago for those who had spent "years in sickening genuflection to the Murdoch press".

A similar knee-bending comment by Mr MacKenzie later in the seminar hinted at a degree of prior consultation on the inquiry's merits between these two giants of the popular press. With the accelerating scandal of phone hacking had come a loss of proportion, claimed Mr Dacre. He said no cities were looted; no-one died; no banks collapsed. Yet Downing Street had ordered a public inquiry with greater powers than the Chilcott investigation of the Iraq war.

The Daily Mail's assessment of the UK media is that it is in "a sick financial state". He attacked the idea of regulation as necessary medicine, attacked the Data Protection Act as hampering basic journalistic practice, and attacked the Human Rights Act, not because the Daily Mail always does this, but because judges attach more weight to the right to privacy than the right to free expression. The Leveson seminars have so far looked bogged down in self-analysis and congratulatory back-patting. The Dacre U-turn ends the introspection.

Few would have expected the Mail boss to abhor statutory control and discuss "the areas where parliament can help the press" all in the same sentence.

Yet it was evident from his address that he fears a reformed PCC could become the junior partner of Ofcom, the powerful broadcast regulator.

Sly Bailey, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, distanced her newspapers from any wrong-doing. Her PLC, she said, had assessed the risks and good "corporate governance" had helped.

Mistakes, however, have been made and Mr Dacre seemed to be outlining the punishment he now preferred for everyone. The ombudsman might work on a "polluter pays" basis, imposing fines and forcing newspapers to carry the costs of investigations into their own misbehaviour. The Leveson gathering had been given the Mail's version of regulation-lite and Mr Dacre did not expect all to approve. But he admitted the big decisions may already have been taken. He said Mr Cameron had become too close to News International and described the PM's description of the PCC as a "failed" body as "a pretty cynical act of political expediency".

Mr MacKenzie, backed up the assault, asking: "Where is our great Prime Minister who ordered this ludicrous inquiry?" Blair was good at arse-kissing, said the editor "wot won it", as was Brown. "But Cameron was the Daddy."

MacKenzie said the proof that Mr Cameron was "certifiable" was his hiring of Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World who became Downing Street's director of communications. The Tory leader couldn't win a general election in a recession against "a turnip like Brown" and in trying to avoid the fall-out from phone hacking had ordered "this bloody inquiry". When the inquiry actually begins, this kind of comic turn won't be allowed.

Mr MacKenzie knew it was his last chance to entertain with a gag-laden script that ended on a serious note: that free speech should be enshrined and that phone hacking may have been "a moment in time when low-grade criminality took over a newspaper".

Who's who: The inquiry panel members

The Leveson inquiry is split into two parts. The first stage will examine "the culture, practices, and ethics of the press" and the relationship between newspapers, politicians and the police. It will report in 12 months. Witnesses will be called from mid-November.

The second part will look into phone-hacking at News International. The schedule for this stage is unclear, pending the outcome of the Met's own investigation.

The seven-person panel are:

Lord Justice Leveson (chairman): Veteran criminal and commercial lawyer. Secured the conviction of serial killer Rose West.

Sir David Bell: Former chairman of the Media Standards Trust – 40 years' experience as a journalist and manager at the Financial Times.

Shami Chakrabarti: Director of the human rights group Liberty since 2001. Previously a barrister and Home Office lawyer.

Lord David Currie: Cross-bench peer and former Ofcom chairman – also sits on the board of Dubai Financial Services.

Elinor Goodman: Veteran journalist – spent 20 years as Channel 4's political editor. BBC Radio 4 presenter and Defra adviser.

George Jones: Longstanding political editor at The Daily Telegraph until 2007. Brother of BBC politics reporter Nick Jones.

Sir Paul Scott-Lee: Former Chief Constable of West Midlands. Led inquiry into death of Manchester Chief Constable Michael Todd.

46 "victims" including Gerry and Kate McCann, Sienna Miller, Hugh Grant, the Dowlers and JK Rowling have been named "core participants" in stage one. The inquiry has so far called on 130 witnesses.

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