Leveson refuses to be drawn into row on press regulation

The promise that Sir Brian would be ‘given a pretty hard time’ by MPs never really materialised

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Indy Politics

Attempts to recruit Lord Justice Leveson to take sides in the heated debate on the future regulation of Britain’s press failed, as he told MPs he refused to “unpick” his own recommendations or enter any “political argument” they might have caused.

However, he insisted that state-controlled regulation of the press had never been his aim, and that any effective “independent” regulator had to work for both newspaper and the public.

The day after he refused to be drawn by the Lords on the same subject, Sir Brian again drew a “red line” under questioning by MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee over the merits of the Royal Charter proposal being examined by the Privy Council.

Negotiations over any final revision to the charter, which was passed by the Commons in March, will be concluded before noon today. The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, her Labour shadow, Harriet Harman, and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the Liberal Democrat’s Advocate General for Scotland, are now holding discussions only on the cross-party charter after a sub-committee of the Privy Council this week rejected an alternative system proposed by Telegraph, Mail, Mirror and Express newspaper groups.

Providing there is no unexpected last-minute legal development, the Privy Council will publish the charter details this afternoon. The Independent has been told the changes agreed so far have been “essentially technical”. Although the Queen will not seal the charter until the end of this month, no further negotiations will take place.

Questioned on the Royal Charter by committee chair John Whittingdale, Sir Brian said that throughout his inquiry – which took almost 18 months – he had not thought of it as a possible solution. He added: “What’s more, nobody suggested it. I received suggestions from hundreds of people, from dozens of bodies, and it wasn’t a concept that came to me then or at any stage over the course of my deliberations.”

Ignoring Sir Brian’s comments to the Lords on Wednesday that it would be “absolutely inappropriate” for him to risk his judicial neutrality and enter the political debate on press regulation, Mr Whittingdale asked him directly what he thought of royal charters.

Despite his refusal to answer – Sir Brian said it would be wrong for a serving judge to “comment on what is now a politically contentious issue” and that “judges simply don’t get involved in these issues” – other MPs continued with variants of the same question.

But the promise, made by Mr Whittingdale, that Sir Brian would be given a “pretty hard time”, never really materialised. Frequently batting away appeals that his views would be helpful, welcome and that his silence was “frustrating”, Sir Brian told the committee he was not “trying to be difficult” but that anything they wanted to know “was all there” in his report.

However, he did admit to being frustrated that debate was still centred on “statutory regulation”, adding: “I do not believe that the independent self-regulatory regime that I proposed in any sense impacts on the freedom of the press to publish what it wants.”

There was also a mannered reminder to Downing Street of the promise David Cameron made when he ordered the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011. The Prime Minister promised he would not disappoint those who had been affected by wrongdoing inside sections of the press, so long as the inquiry did not come up with “anything that is bonkers”.

Repeating to the committee that all they wanted to know was “inside the pages of my report”, he quietly added: “which I hope is not bonkers”.

Asked by Labour MP Ben Bradshaw about the continuing delay in the Government reaching an agreement on press reform, Sir Brian almost dropped his guard, saying: “I would be sorry if my recommendations were lost.”