Mary Dejevsky: It's no longer the Murdoch press in the dock, it's the politicians

Leveson is doing the sort of inquisitorial job that rightly belongs to Parliament


At the time, it must have seemed like such a good idea. With the country united in righteous indignation about the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, and the gloss – that this was a criminal, nay heartless, act typical of a certain strand of the British press – the Prime Minister adopted a solemn mien and announced an inquiry.

But not only must it have seemed a good idea, in the sense of imposing the firm smack of Government and simultaneously feeling the public's pain, it must have seemed copper-bottomed safe. An inquiry might not actually do any good, but what possible harm could be done by a three-part inquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics of the press"? You can almost hear the wry laughter at the very mention of "ethics". Public money was earmarked, Lord Justice Leveson was appointed to preside, and the whole fandango swept into the Royal Courts of Justice with a speed quite extraordinary for anything initiated by government.

Less than 11 months on, David Cameron must be ruing the day he announced this Inquiry. Nor will he be the first prime minister to be forced to reflect on the unintended consequences of rashly pandering to the public mood. Not only has the immediate trigger for the Inquiry been partly discredited – that News of the World journalists deleted messages from the deceased Milly Dowler's voicemail, misleading her parents and the police into believing she was still alive – but the Inquiry itself has come back to bite him. In a sure sign of regret, he is reported to be taking out his unhappiness on his chief civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood. Civil servants are like lawyers: they set out the options and make recommendations, but they make you take the decision, so you have only yourself to blame. Cameron made several mistakes here, mistakes he will probably not make again.

With Leveson, though, it is too late. It is hard to pin down exactly when the balance tipped, but what began as an inquiry into the excesses of the press and how to curb them, has flipped almost unnoticed into a forensic exposé of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media – and the politicians, in shades of the MPs' expenses scandal, are so far coming off worse. So much worse that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in his evidence yesterday tried periodically to rekindle some residual indignation about phone hacking. He failed. The truth was that he was on trial for his job, and by extension – as a relatively young and presentable politician – for his career.

In the circumstances, Hunt acquitted himself well, as indeed have many of the witnesses summoned to this Inquiry, from Rebekah Brooks, the supposed fall-gal for the Murdoch media, to the procession of government ministers and advisers quizzed this week. One conclusion to be drawn is that money buys some pretty effective training in how not to come a cropper when the cameras are trained on you and the questions keep coming: keep calm, submit a blizzard of digi-documents, and carry on.

How damaged you think Hunt was by yesterday's encounter probably depends on what you thought before – which is a sign that, in six hours, he managed not to make the hole he was in much deeper. He did not conceal his largely sympathetic view of News Corp's bid for BSkyB. Nor would there have been much point in so doing, given the positive memo he had once sent Cameron on the subject. The question is whether, as a minister in a "quasi-judicial" role, he was able to separate his own views from the judgement he had to make for the Government.

Personally, I see no reason why a minister, including this minister, should not be able to separate the personal from the professional. One way or another, that is the nature of their job. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, would have been doing the same, when the decision on the BSkyB bid rested with him. He may well, as he foolishly boasted to two reporters, have "declared war on Murdoch", but this would not necessarily have prevented him from observing the correct procedures and weighing his decision as the responsible minister. The problem here, as with Hunt, is that his private view became public. The problem for Cameron is that his instant response to Cable's indiscretion was to take him off the case, on the grounds that he would no longer be seen as a fair arbiter. With Hunt, he seems not to have seen a similar danger.

The most sensible contribution to the BSkyB affair was made by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, who said that such decisions should not rest with ministers, because that made them political. One of Hunt's points yesterday – repeated so often as to suggest it featured in his preparation – was that his decision to refer the BSkyB bid to Ofcom was unpopular with News Corp. Ergo, he implied, he was doing his "quasi-judicial" job.

Fairly or not, whatever awaits Hunt, the perception of bias in the BSkyB bid is likely to stick, even though he heeded legal advice, even though he referred the bid to the regulator, and even though, for quite other reasons, the bid came to nothing. And if his fate is sealed, the taint will extend to Cameron, for pushing what was always a contentious bid in his direction. Trying to distinguish between "sympathetic" and "supportive" to describe Hunt's approach will not really wash.

That the job of a favoured minister is at risk and the fall-out is approaching the threshold of No 10 illustrates how completely the emphasis of the Leveson Inquiry has shifted. In the three weeks that relations between politicians and press have been under the microscope, it is the politicians' almost abject need for the press that has become apparent, far, far more than the press's need for the politicians. In its scrutiny of that relationship in general, and the BSkyB bid in particular, Leveson is doing the sort of inquisitorial job of holding the executive to account that rightly belongs to Parliament.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this unforeseen twist, it might be that modern Britain would benefit from the sort of separation of legislative and executive power that many other democracies take for granted. Cross-party parliamentary committees are becoming more aggressive, but in a system that presupposes ministers are also MPs, the constitutional checks on their power are not good enough.

React Now

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

Commercial IT Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Commercial IT Solicitor - London We h...

Business Analyst / Project Manager - Financial Services

£40000 - £45000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: One of the mos...

Lead Business Analyst - Banking - London - £585

£525 - £585 per day: Orgtel: Lead Business Analyst - Investment Banking - Lond...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People could be forced to pay inheritance tax before they actually die, according to proposals being considered by the Government  

The definition of a ‘high-earner’ has changed, and tax must change with it

Nigel Farage

Turkey and Qatar must step up the fight against Isis

Benedict Greening
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home