Critics fear MPs' plan to call Leveson could turn into televised 'grilling'

 

Lord Justice Leveson faces a televised grilling by critical MPs when he publishes his report into press regulation.

John Whittingdale, the chairman of the influential Culture, Media & Sport select committee, told The Independent that he planned to call Lord Leveson as a witness, so that MPs could examine his proposals for newspaper regulation in detail.

Campaigners backing a new statutory regime expressed concern at the news.

The release of Lord Leveson’s report, following his inquiry into the culture and practices of the press, has been delayed until the end of November. He is expected to propose a system that involves a new regulator with some form of statutory underpinning.

David Cameron has indicated his support for an independent regulator that could impose fines and investigate wrongdoing by newspapers. However a number of Cabinet ministers have expressed opposition to any new laws which would regulate newspapers.

The Prime Minister could now wait for the Commons committee to hold its hearings before committing the Government to any specific action.

The media committee has previously held high-profile sessions with Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks during its own inquiry into phone-hacking.

Mr Whittingdale said: “The committee has taken a lead on this issue. It is highly likely that we will call Lord Justice Leveson to examine his recommendations. We would also want to hear from various groups and listen to their concerns.”

Asked if Lord Leveson’s appearance, certain to be broadcast live on television news channels, might turn into a “grilling”, the MP said: “Possibly. We’ll have to see what the report says.”

His committee includes vocal critics of Lord Leveson’s conduct of the inquiry, including Philip Davies, the backbench Conservative MP.

When the judge reportedly threatened to quit after Michael Gove, then the Education Secretary, warned of a “chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression”, Mr Davies said: “Lord Leveson says that he understands free speech yet he immediately objects as soon as someone exercises it.”

Mr Whittingdale has accused the Leveson inquiry of providing a platform for celebrities harbouring “grudges” against newspapers.

Hacked Off, the campaign group which argues that self-regulation of the press has failed, said forcing the judge to account for himself before a panel of MPs would be “highly unusual”.

Brian Cathcart, its director, said: “I’m sure Brian Leveson would acquit himself perfectly well but it seems very odd for a judge in charge of a public inquiry to then be grilled by a committee of MPs. The judge’s position would normally be to make recommendations on the basis of evidence and then let the findings speak for themselves.”

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, might be concerned that a precedent would be set by summoning Lord Justice Leveson to appear, Mr Cathcart suggested. He also said he was concerned that Mr Whittingdale had expressed his opposition to statutory regulation before the report had been published.

Mr Whittingdale has said: “Any politician will want to think long and hard before going down the road of legislating over the press. It is in my view a very dangerous thing to do.”

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