Rarely, if ever, can one of the most mundane words in the English language have been used to such devastating effect. After two hours – at times it seemed like two days – of Sir Brian Leveson’s interrogation, chairman John Whittingdale finally let the select committee’s licensed bovver boy, the BBC-hating, liberal-baiting, Tory MP Philip Davies, off the leash.
Why had he done nothing about the conflict of interest in his junior counsel’s relationship with a hacking victims’ barrister? Because, Leveson explained with icy patience, he hadn’t known about it until 13 March, four months after his report was published. “You hadn’t heard any rumours about it before then?” Davies persisted. “Nothing at all?” No. “Really?” At which point a steely-eyed Sir Brian, staring straight at the MP, simply said: “Pardon?” And repeated it in case Davies hadn’t heard. “Pardon?”
Davies swiftly changed tack. Unsurprisingly, since with those two short syllables Sir Brian conveyed with terrifying clarity the outrage felt by the country’s senior Lord Justice of Appeal and head of the Queen’s Bench Division at a casual insinuation that he might have told less than the whole truth. Unfortunately this was the only electric moment.
When, seven minutes in, Whittingdale, deploying all the courtesy that had eluded Davies, asked Sir Brian if he thought royal charters were good for press regulation, and he replied “I’m afraid we may have hit a red line,” explaining – at length – that as a judge it “would be quite wrong for me to comment on what is now a politically contentious issue”, there was a case for calling a halt to the whole thing.
Sir Brian was well aware, of course, of what Whittingdale called the MPs’ “frustration” that he could give them all the answers they wanted except the one they wanted most – who he thought was right in a conflict in which all sides were promoting their own Leveson formulae. “I’ve become used to becoming an adjective rather than a noun,” he quipped. When the Tory Tracey Crouch started one question “So you’re saying…” he said sharply “With great respect” – a Leveson favourite this – “I’m not saying anything.” He was referring to a tricky allegation about press-police relations, but it neatly symbolised the whole session.
Which is another reason why that “Pardon?” will resonate long after the rest is forgotten.