Adrian Hamilton: Leveson risks becoming mired in politics

 

Share

Lord Justice Leveson is said to be no longer enjoying his role as chairman of the inquiry into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press". Little wonder. When it started, his inquiry had all the glamour and drama any criminal judge might want. Hard-nosed hacks squirmed at the questioning of the propriety of their actions. Executives of News International had no alternative but to state their abject apologies for what was done in their name but not, so they said, with their knowledge. Leveson could bask in the assertion of the primacy of the law over an anarchic media.

Now, however, the proceedings have moved from the criminal to the political. David Cameron's opponents want him pinioned with the charge of selling out to Rupert Murdoch, and they see in Leveson a means of doing just that. The emails between the adviser to the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and News International have whetted the appetite. The questioning of Coulson yesterday would, it was hoped, drive the knife still further.

The irony, of course, is that the Prime Minister commissioned the inquiry precisely to avoid this situation. If it hadn't been for his association with Andy Coulson, whom he appointed as his Communications Director soon after the phone-hacking scandal first broke, there would probably have been no inquiry. The question of phone hacking would have been left to the law. But, with Coulson dragging the Prime Minister into the affair, diversionary tactics were employed. The object, as so often with these judicial investigations, was to bury the matter in an endless marshland of general issues about the media and its practices.

It hasn't turned out that way. What Cameron and Leveson seem to have underestimated was the degree of real hatred that there is for Rupert Murdoch, who is seen by some (not without reason) as the source of all the debasement of media standards and the wielder of overweening power over politicians. And so the inquiry has taken the form less of an investigation into an industry than the trial of an all-powerful media magnate.

Time and time again yesterday, the inquiry's QC, Robert Jay, tried to build up a case, almost as prosecuting counsel, that Coulson had been appointed by the Prime Minister as a deliberate move to get the Murdoch press on his side and that Coulson's job was to act as the go-between, a courtier to King Rupert. And if the former showbiz reporter blocked every question with a denial that this was the case, his very defensiveness left the impression that it was otherwise.

Judging from Twitter and other comment as the questioning continued, this is exactly what most people wanted Leveson to achieve: the portrayal of a world in which party leaders and Prime Ministers sought the approval of an overmighty press baron. Looking at Jay's forensic questioning, the QC is clearly not averse to the role of Jack the Giant Killer.

Whether Lord Justice Leveson feels the same way is more uncertain. The problem for him, as for his Committee, is to try to pull the inquiry back from political immediacy and to give shape to its inchoate remit. One doesn't envy him the task, and the press has every reason to fear how he does it.

In a revealing intervention during the Murdoch evidence last week, Lord Justice Leveson declared that every section of society – "including judges" – were made accountable "except the media". Whenever it came to discussing with editors or proprietors the behaviour of the press, there has appeared an assumption, first, that the media is extremely powerful, and, second, that it acts outside the bounds of society, if not the law.

There are many who might agree with him, particularly politicians smarting at the exposure of expenses, and celebrities irritated at revelations about their lives. But the assumption begs a host of questions about whether a press in rapid decline does have this power and whether the ethos of a press intent on "discovery" is ever compatible with propriety and privacy.

The trouble with those who want Leveson to bring down Murdoch and all he stands for is that they may well bring about a regulatory regime which judges and politicians would delight in but which would cripple the press as a whole.

The fall of the Murdoch hegemony is an end devoutly to be desired, no doubt. But to usher in a world in which what interests the public is replaced by a "public interest" defined by the establishment would be too high a price to pay for it.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” following Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip  

Douglas Carswell’s defection reminds us that it's the Tories who have the most to fear from Ukip

Andrew Grice
Daniel Barenboim conducts Prom 46  

Despite Gaza’s war, the show must go on

David Lister
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone