Brian Cathcart: With Leveson the clean-up can begin

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Thank goodness for the Leveson inquiry.
The Independent's revelations yesterday about private investigator Steve Whittamore and Operation Motorman underline the need for patient, thorough and far-reaching scrutiny of what has been happening in this country in the name of journalism – and that, if all goes well, is what Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry is set up to be.

The scale of Whittamore's activities for media organisations before 2003, now revealed to amount to no fewer than 17,489 individual orders, is remarkable enough, but the allegation by the so-far unnamed senior police investigator that his work was frustrated because officials feared the power of the press is shocking.

How many of those 17,489 orders entailed criminality or unethical conduct? And how many people were involved? We don't know. How far can the retired officer's testimony be corroborated? We don't know that either. But we do know that a body exists which has the means and the remit to find the answers, and until July of this year, when the inquiry was established, no such body existed.

Before July it was even possible that the phone-hacking scandal might never be fully explored, and that it might be smothered by generous payouts in the civil lawsuits and a series of low-level guilty pleas in the criminal actions. There is no chance of that now.

From the hacking and subsequent cover-up to the use of private investigators and the practice of blagging, and from meetings in The Ivy restaurant in London between editors and police officers to the back-door visits to Downing Street by newspaper proprietors, there is an enormous amount here for us to worry about.

Something fundamental has gone wrong in our news culture and in the ethical structure of British journalism, and the repercussions for wider society are far-reaching. It is not too much to say that this is about who runs the country, and how free of improper influence our politicians and public servants are. It is also about how far we can trust our news media.

The best way we have of addressing concerns on this scale is a public inquiry, usually under a senior judge, and with the support of a group of informed, independent and eminent people. In other words, Lord Justice Leveson and his panel. Lawyers will be involved, which may be expensive and tiresome at times, but which also ensures that people are rigorously questioned.

There are the resources to ensure that the effort of investigation and consideration is proportionate to the problems being addressed. We still have good journalism. Indeed it exists and thrives and is responsible for most of what we know about these scandals. Of course nothing should be done to shackle or inhibit it. But good journalism surely has nothing to fear from Leveson's scrutiny: it can make its case and justify what it does in the public interest.

And that line between what is in the public interest and what the public is interested in is not, as has been suggested, "impossibly blurred". That is just what the professional privacy invaders who pass themselves off as journalists want us to believe. The line can be drawn – not with unfailing, universal clarity, perhaps, but well enough to be a practical guide. Leveson provides the opportunity to make the distinction.

The inquiry will probably sit for two years or more. That is inevitable because to discharge some of its duties it must wait for the end of criminal proceedings. But it is also a virtue because it will give the judge and his panel the opportunity to draw out the lessons from what they hear, and it will give responsible media outlets the time to dig up more of the hitherto secret information that Leveson and his panel need to consider.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London and a founder of Hacked Off ( www.hackinginquiry.org)

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