Lord Justice Leveson: Grand inquisitor of the press

The phone-hacking scandal has convulsed the media. Now the industry must prepare to submit itself to a judge whose self-deprecation masks a rigorous line in questioning

After a career that has seen him rise to become one of Britain's most senior judges, Lord Justice Leveson found himself on trial earlier this year. His accuser was The Sun newspaper, which condemned the Sentencing Council, of which Leveson is chairman, for its "barmy" approach to crime.

Attacking "Junkie Justice", the tabloid published a picture of a faceless figure in a horsehair wig and pronounced its verdict: "Off Their Heads."

The bespectacled 62-year-old judge, who in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal now presides over the most important and far-reaching inquiry ever held into the standards of the British press, will no doubt have viewed this monstering by The Sun last March with interest, if not concern.

But he is not someone to be bullied. Lord Justice Leveson built his reputation as a hardened prosecutor, most famously securing the conviction of the serial killer Rose West at Winchester Crown Court in 1995. He is used to such cases, when the press gallery is full to overflowing. He appeared as a barrister in many of the biggest corporate trials at the end of the last century: Barings, BCCI, Polly Peck.

As a judge, he has presided over high-profile murder cases such as the horrific axe killing of the teenager Anthony Walker in Leveson's home city of Liverpool. Handing down to Walker's killers what even The Sun described as "tough sentences", Leveson ruled that there was racial motivation. "You took from Anthony Walker his most precious possession, that is to say his life and all it held for him."

A few months later, Leveson sat at the Damilola Taylor trial, where two teenage brothers were cleared of the murder of the 10-year-old schoolboy. At the end of the hearing, the judge extended his "deepest sympathies" to Damilola's parents, who he said had attended the proceedings "assiduously". At that same trial, Leveson demonstrated his awareness of popular culture by warning jurors not to replicate the behaviour of the star of the television legal drama Judge John Deed, who in a recent episode had been called for jury service and begun investigating the case outside of court. "You simply must not start to research this case, no matter what Martin Shaw has done," he said.

When he was appointed to the Sentencing Council, he demonstrated his determination to increase awareness of the workings of the justice system and promised to "help to inform the public about the practice of sentencing in our courts".

Married for 30 years and with two sons and a daughter, Leveson has made an effort to counter the popular view of the judiciary as being out of touch with ordinary people. "I go to Tesco's and I have teenage children who keep my feet on the ground. I don't live on a rough estate, but otherwise I lead a normal life," he reportedly told one legal blogger in 2007. So, if he had occasion to read the words of online commentators on The Sun's criticisms of his sentencing plans, Leveson might have sighed on seeing himself and his colleagues derided as "a load of senile old farts who should have retired years ago".

He was made aware of the importance of a popular touch back in 1989 during another trial in his home city when he found himself leading the Inland Revenue's prosecution of the Liverpool comedian Ken Dodd, who had stashed a vast amount of cash in his attic. Despite having an apparently strong case, Leveson found himself having to contend with a comedy double act in the form of "Doddy" and his defence barrister, the famously smooth George Carman QC. Asked by the judge what £100,000 in a suitcase felt like, Dodd responded: "The notes are very light, M'lud." Carman, known as the "Silver Fox of the Bar", told the court: "Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants." Leveson's own approach had been very much that of the accountant, an exhaustive but dry audit of the case against the funny man.

After a three-week trial Dodd was acquitted by a home-town jury which preferred Dodd's gags to the case made by the Liverpudlian prosecutor. Later, the legal writer Dominic Carman, son of George, asked the trial judge Sir Ronald Waterhouse to reminisce on Leveson's performance. "He lost the mood of the case, and he certainly lost the jury," he said.

One of the toughest challenges for Lord Justice Leveson in his inquiry into phone hacking and press standards will be to keep it on track when it has a very broad remit.

The Dodd trial was one of the few hard lessons he has had to learn in a distinguished legal career in which he was called to the bar after graduation from Merton College, Oxford. He prosecuted in criminal trials in the north-west of England and was only 37 when he took silk. He is now one of the most respected close colleagues of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Judge.

Another lesson was learned more recently when, following his appointment to the press standards inquiry, he was revealed to have had a social relationship with the PR supremo and consummate networker Matthew Freud, the son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp media empire is the central focus of the phone-hacking scandal. The judge attended two large parties at the home of Freud and his wife Elisabeth Murdoch (a member of the News Corp board) after the PR man agreed to do some free consultancy work for the Sentencing Council. News of the relationship prompted some to call for Leveson to stand down from an inquiry which has at its heart the hidden relationships that bond the media with those who govern and apply the rule of law.

But Lord Justice Leveson was hardly a card-carrying member of the Chipping Norton set. Commentators admitted that he is "not a great socialiser" and, as he himself says of the inquiry panel, it is "inevitable" that such experienced figures will have had contacts with people in influence. "Had I the slightest doubt about my own position, I would not have accepted the appointment," he said.

When he unveiled the scope of the inquiry at London's Queen Elizabeth II conference centre this week, Lord Justice Leveson opened with a joke. "Good morning," he said. "My name is Brian Leveson. Although flattered that various politicians and members of the press have elevated me to the rank of peerage, I am not Lord Leveson: my judicial rank is that of a Lord Justice of Appeal."

It may not be up there with one of Doddy's, but it showed a lack of pomposity. According to the political writer Paul Waugh, editor of the Politics Home blog, Leveson demonstrated "a classic judicial mixture of the stern and the self-deprecating".

Leveson is described as "practical" and "rigorous". He will need all those qualities in steering an inquiry of the highest political sensitivity. Those critics who wish to characterise him – as they have his judicial colleague and media specialist Mr Justice Eady – as a fuddy-duddy figure with an instinctive distrust of journalism should take account of the times he has stood up for freedom of expression. Such as when he and two other Court of Appeal judges backed reporter Robin Ackroyd, writing for the Daily Mirror, in not forcing him to disclose to the Mersey Care NHS Trust the sources who had provided details of the medical records of the Moors murderer Ian Brady.

Earlier this year Leveson went on BBC radio to defend a judge who was being castigated for leniency in fining a man £50 for burning poppies during an Armistice Day event, pointing out the need to balance the offence "against the right we all have to express ourselves freely".

He stands up for the judiciary too. Answering The Sun's criticisms of supposed leniency, this most practical of judges emphasised his desire for "proportionality" and consistency. "None of us are soft on crime," he insisted.

A life in brief

Born: Brian Henry Leveson, 22 June 1949, Liverpool.

Family: Lives with his wife Lynne and three children in London.

Education: After attending Liverpool College, he read law at Merton College, Oxford.

Career: He was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1970 and in 1986 became one of the youngest barristers to be appointed a QC. He presented the case against Rose and Fred West in 1995. In 2000, he was appointed to be Judge of the High Court, presiding over high-profile cases such as the 2005 murder of Liverpool teenager Anthony Walker. In July 2011 it was announced he will head the inquiry into standards in the media.

He says: "The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?"

They say: "Everyone I've talked to tells me that Leveson is as straight as they come. He's a plain speaker and he's inscrutable." Tom Watson MP

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