When the Prime Minister established the Leveson Inquiry, he was doing more than setting up a vehicle for some gentle probing into the excesses of the press.
He was putting the press on trial and choosing the judge. And Leveson has been like a court, make no mistake. The Inquiry sat in courtroom 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice, witnesses gave their evidence under oath, they could have been compelled to attend, the proceedings bore all the solemnity of a court hearing, Leveson was robed, those appearing were cross-examined by a QC. And now we have the judge’s verdict.
It’s damning and shaming. On page after page, he lays bare journalists out of control, stopping at nothing to get a story, sometimes doing untold harm to those they were pursuing, frequently displaying a total disregard for accuracy, decency and objectivity. Sometimes, they were aided and abetted by the police and politicians – newspapers did not behave badly alone, they paid for information and were able to call on favours to suppress investigation into their activities.
All of which is shocking; except I am not shocked. Nothing in Leveson’s gargantuan tome causes me to fall off my chair or reach for a medicinal brandy.
Leveson has done what I could have done. What any intelligent person could have done, if asked to examine the culture, ethics and standards of the press. I admit, I might not have brought the same degree of diligence to the task as the good judge – I’m not sure I could have sat there day after day and displayed patience and courtesy throughout – and I would have made my final report a lot shorter.
But then my version would have lacked authority and weight. It would not have gone in for the point-by-point dissection that in the end pummels even the most sceptical Leveson reader into submission. My degree was in law, I trained as a lawyer (I was, it must be said, a bad lawyer which is why I became a journalist), I know how lawyers think and act. Some of my best friends are lawyers, very good ones, some of them have names that would cause even Sir Brian Leveson to nod in appreciation.
Leveson approached his brief as any brilliant lawyer would have done, particularly one hugely experienced in the art of presenting a case for the prosecution. He’s left no stone unturned, maintaining rigour and dispassion throughout, cold in his analysis but able to pull on the heart-strings with tales of ordinary people who were left wounded, without recompense, by the press.
In this instance, though, there is no jury for Leveson to plead to, no defence to counter his claims, no judge sitting on high giving him a baleful stare and asking him to get on with it. He is that jury, defence and judge rolled into one. Of course, he had advisers. But did they dare to challenge him? I’d love to see the minutes of their meetings – perhaps we ought to demand sight of them.
I gave evidence to Leveson, first in writing, then in person. What struck me about the process was how unworldly it was. He clearly thought we spend our time discussing ethical issues, that everything we do is written down and pondered over at length, that we while away hours in learned philosophising. The immediacy and instantaneous nature of much of our craft seemed alien to him. The sheer casualness, as he saw it, infuriated him. We don’t have to pass exams or undergo continual training, we don’t have a single body speaking for the industry.
In the closed society in which we work (something Leveson might not accept), off-the-record briefings are meat and drink to us. We’re not a regimented profession, like Leveson’s legal bar. Yet we have enormous power. Leveson struggled with this. It’s there in his report – you can feel his bafflement, his barely held-back disbelief and occasional anger, as he writes about the lack of structure and process.
None of which is to excuse the appalling misdeeds of elements of the press and the callous way in which victims were treated. But, I would argue, no amount of regulation will prevent bad apples: MPs are required to fill in expenses forms, some filled them in fraudulently; bankers must keep a record of business calls and emails in case the FSA comes knocking, so they carry two phones, one for business and material they don’t mind the FSA seeing and one, ostensibly for their private lives but also material they do want to keep from official eyes. There are laws against bank robbery, yet every working day a bank is robbed.
As a lawyer, Leveson finds this hard to accept. Since he was a law student, he has gorged on a diet of written-down regulations and rules to be obeyed. Faith in their supremacy is second nature to him. Without them, he does not have a job; they’re his instruments of trade. Yes, he has professed his belief in independent self-regulation but he can’t help himself: lawyers don’t do self-regulation, it’s anathema to them. So his instinct kicks in and he advocates the use of statute. I refuse to be convinced that he wasn’t always going to head down the statutory underpinning route. A judge proposing a system without a basis in law? Not a chance.