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Leveson report lets the press, politicians and police off the hook

by Simon Basketter


The report issued by Lord Justice Leveson last week has done its job effectively.

David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry last year as the establishment panicked at the prospect of the phone hacking scandal bringing down key pillars of the state.

Its scope was limited because it was intended to calm things down and obscure the truth. So Leveson was charged with investigating the “culture, practice and ethics” of the media in general.

The hacking scandal exposed corruption that extended well beyond the News of the World. It implicated the police and the political establishment.

But on this and much else Leveson’s interminable prose—all 1,987 pages of it—adds nothing. Instead it has generated acres of media blather about the rights and wrongs of press regulation.

Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and several senior police officers are all cleared by Leveson’s almost miraculous reading of events.

The report does of course denounce the “injudicious, sensationalist and intemperate” behaviour of Murdoch’s phone hacking hacks. But then Leveson stops looking.

His findings were published on Thursday of last week. On the same day, ex-News of the World editor and Downing Street spin doctor Andy Coulson and Cameron’s horse-riding mate Rebekah Brooks again appeared in court. They face allegations of paying public officials for information, among other charges.

Judgement

Leveson does question chancellor George Osborne’s judgement in hiring Coulson as a spin doctor. Coulson had resigned from the News of the World after a journalist was jailed for phone hacking. But he says very little about it.

Some had claimed Cameron did a deal with Murdoch to wave through the press baron’s takeover of BSkyB in return for supportive coverage.

Leveson insisted there was no evidence of any “grand deal”. But he does say that Murdoch didn’t need to do an explicit deal with Cameron—because he was so powerful, he never needed to ask.

Politicians were competing for support and knew that taking Murdoch on would lead to a backlash from his titles.

Leveson pointed out that the Tories weren’t the only ones who got too close to the press. He said Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond had a “striking” willingness to lobby on behalf of Murdoch. He referred to Labour being “cowed” by Murdoch.

Leveson says of Murdoch, “It is the ‘without having to ask’ which is especially important here. Sometimes the very greatest power is exercised without having to ask, because to ask would be to state the blindingly obvious.”

Perhaps Leveson is well placed to understand that. After all, nobody asked him to oversee a whitewash that would ask the wrong questions and give the wrong answers.


Police failures were ‘perfectly reasonable’

The cops themselves are now actively investigating corruption within the Metropolitan Police. Senior police officers refused to investigate evidence of phone hacking on Rupert Murdoch titles.

This included evidence that some cops had their own phones hacked, and others had hacked phones themselves. Some of these officers went on to work for Murdoch’s News International.

Police and other officials were bribed. Yet Leveson’s report insists that there was “no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police”.

Leveson said “poor decisions” by the Met meant that officers wrongly thought phone hacking was confined to one News of the World reporter.

Former Met police chief John Yates was singled out for some criticism for his failure to reopen the inquiry into phone hacking in 2009. Yates was friends with Neil Wallis, a former boss at the paper, at the time. Wallis went on to provide PR advice for the cops.

Leveson wrote, “The police (who had perfectly reasonably decided to limit the prosecutions in 2006 not least because of their incredible workload that was a consequence of terrorism) decided that there was no new evidence contained within the article even to justify a review.”

He added that cops should be warned off drinking with journalists as alcohol “could increase the risk of gossip or inappropriate commentary”.

Leveson describes an “entirely understandable” perception that the relationship between the Met and News International has grown too close with a “revolving door” operating between the two.

But he insisted nonetheless, “I have not seen any evidence that corruption by the press is a widespread problem in the police.”


The price of preparation

Lawyers from the Treasury solicitor’s department alone ran up a £274,000 bill preparing Cameron and others in the cabinet to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. This sum does not include fees for lawyers working in other Whitehall departments.


Inquiry ignored Daniel Morgan’s murder

Leveson chose not to look at the murder of Daniel Morgan. He wrote, “to have examined the issues arising would have taken weeks or months and I did not consider that the very limited time available for this inquiry was best deployed in that way.”

Yet he does manage to get the year of Daniel Morgan’s death wrong by a decade. Daniel Morgan was murdered with an axe in 1987. But despite five police investigations no one has ever been convicted of his murder.

Morgan’s former business partner, Jonathan Rees, was one of those acquitted of his murder. Rees and his company, Southern Investigations, were widely used by journalists to access secret information. They hacked phones and stole information.

The police have admitted that the first investigation into Daniel Morgan’s murder was corrupt. Then detective sergeant Sid Fillery interviewed Rees.

But Fillery never disclosed to the investigation that the pair were close friends and business associates. Fillery became Rees’s partner after leaving the police.

Andy Coulson, when editing the News of the World, rehired Rees after Rees was released from prison in 2005 following a conviction for another crime. Coulson went on to become David Cameron’s spin doctor. But Leveson decided his time was best deployed looking at other things.


Evidence points to a cover-up

Leveson said phone hacking “was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the ‘dark arts’.” But he had little more to add. Leveson noted that newspaper editors from various titles joked about which stories came from hacking.

“Time and time again, there have been serious and uncorrected failures within parts of the national press that may have stretched from the criminal to the indefensibly unethical, from passing off fiction as fact to paying lip service to accuracy”.

He added, “This suggests a cover-up by somebody and at more than one level.” But Leveson then made no effort to explore that cover-up.

Leveson commented on the close relationship between Cameron and Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and of the Sun.

He said, “Like everyone else, politicians are entitled to be friendly with whomsoever they wish and there must remain some space for a private life.”

He criticised Brooks over revelations in the Sun that Gordon Brown’s four month old son Fraser had cystic fibrosis.

But he said Brooks had not “deliberately misled the inquiry” when she said the Browns had agreed to publication of the story about the boy.


Hunt cleared over BSkyB bid

Leveson cleared former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt over the handling of Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid.

Hunt is a self-confessed “cheerleader for Murdoch”. A row over the bid forced Hunt’s adviser, Adam Smith, to resign. Smith had been privately updating Fredric Michel, a lobbyist for Murdoch, on the status of the deal. Leveson said, “I doubt the wisdom of appointing Smith to this role.”

James Murdoch’s evidence to the inquiry, along with a 163-page dossier of emails, showed an intimate relationship between Michel and Hunt.

Instead of resigning as culture secretary, Hunt was promoted to health secretary. Leveson found “no credible evidence of actual bias on the part of Mr Hunt”.


Article information

Features
Tue 4 Dec 2012, 18:15 GMT
Issue No. 2332
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