Monday, 14 November 2011

The Leveson Inquiry gets underway

The Leveson Inquiry:

Lord Justice Leveson has now started his Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press and proceedings can be followed via the Inquiry's website. and this includes video of the sessions.  A second stage of the Inquiry will examine the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International and other newspaper organisations.  The Terms of Reference for the Inquiry, which is being held under the Inquiries Act 2005, were set by the Prime Minister in July.    The first stage of the inquiry is to be conducted in four modules.   Six assessors are sitting with Lord Justice Leveson.  Counsel to the Inquiry are Robert Jay QC with David Barr and Carine Patry Hoskins and their backgrounds are published on the website.  So called "Core Participants" at this stage are News International; the Metropolitan Police; Victims; The Guardian News and Media Ltd and others.

Interestingly, the setting up of the Inquiry has coincided with the appointment of a new Chair of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC)- Lord Hunt of Wirral - who took this position in October 2011.  The Guardian published an interview with Lord Hunt in which he explains the approach he hopes to take to his duties.   Historically, freedom for the media to publish matters of public concern and interest was hard won and it is notable that Lord Hunt refers to the radical M.P. John Wilkes (1725-98) who said:  "The liberty of the press is a birthright of a Briton and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country."  Those words have a certain resonance in the light of various events such as the M.P.'s expenses scandal and it should be remembered that it was the press which revealed the extent of "phone-hacking" which will eventually be examined by the Leveson Inquiry.  (John Wilkes 1725-98).

There are concerns that
Leveson has chosen to address the phone-hacking at the second stage - see the article in Politics.co.uk - "Journalism on trial as Leveson Inquiry gets underway."  Counsel to the Inquiry began by stating that they would not shirk from challenging the "extraordinary" influence the media has on British public life.  Mr Jay said the "power of the press" might have prevented politicians from addressing the issue before now, in an unexpectedly combative opening statement.  The public may fear this inquiry may pull its punches for the self-same reasons," he said. "I am able to nip any such concerns in the bud."

Interestingly, in what might be seen as imposing a restriction on the media, Lord Justice Leveson began with a pre-emptive strike against any hostile press coverage of his hearings, warning journalists against any unjustified coverage. He said he valued freedom of speech but would draw his own conclusions if newspapers chose to report the proceedings unfairly.  "I anticipate that... monitoring will take place of press coverage of the months to come," Lord Justice Leveson said.  "If it appears those concerns are made out without objective justification, it might be appropriate to draw the conclusion that these vital rights are being abused which would itself give evidence of culture, practice and ethics which could be relevant to my ultimate recommendations."   One would hope that no such conclusion would actually be drawn without giving the press outlet concerned an opportunity to defend its corner.

Prior to commencing his Inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson held a number of seminars.  The spirited defence of press self-regulation put forward by Paul Dacre (Editor of the Daily Mail) is worth noting.   "News, let me remind you, is often something that someone – the rich, the powerful, the privileged – doesn’t want printed", said Mr Dacre.    He went on to cite Lord Woolf and Baroness Hale:

Lord Woolf in a 2002 appeal court judgment on a footballer’s dalliance with a lap dancer - A v B and C [2003] QB 195, [2002] EWCA Civ 337 at para. 11 (xii):

“The courts must not ignore the fact that if newspapers do not publish information which the public are interested in, then there will be fewer newspapers published, which will not be in the public interest.”

Or Baroness Hale in a 2004 Law Lords case - (Campbell v MGN Ltd [2004] UKHL 22 at para. 143):

“One reason why freedom of the press is so important is that we need newspapers to sell in order to ensure that we still have newspapers at all. It may be said that newspapers should be allowed considerable latitude in the intrusions into private grief so that they can maintain circulation and the rest of us can continue to enjoy the variety of newspapers and other mass media which are available in this country.”

Whilst Lady Hale referred (para 143) to the Campbell case as  " ... a prima donna celebrity against a celebrity-exploiting tabloid newspaper" she made the following very potent observation at para. 148:

"There are undoubtedly different types of speech, just as there are different types of private information, some of which are more deserving of protection in a democratic society than others. Top of the list is political speech. The free exchange of information and ideas on matters relevant to the organisation of the economic, social and political life of the country is crucial to any democracy. Without this, it can scarcely be called a democracy at all. This includes revealing information about public figures, especially those in elective office, which would otherwise be private but is relevant to their participation in public life. Intellectual and educational speech and expression are also important in a democracy, not least because they enable the development of individuals' potential to play a full part in society and in our democratic life. Artistic speech and expression is important for similar reasons, in fostering both individual originality and creativity and the free-thinking and dynamic society we so much value. No doubt there are other kinds of speech and expression for which similar claims can be made."  (My emphasis).

The Leveson Inquiry will be watched with great interest and this is especially so for the fact that it was set up during a period of political frenzy over the activities at News of the World.  The eventual recommendations will themselves be subjected to intense scrutiny in the media for their potential to further hamper freedom of speech.

As noted above, the inquiry is subject to the Inquiries Act 2005.  This Act has been the target of much criticism and it will be interesting to see how the government chooses to exercise its extensive powers in relation to various aspects of the inquiry.

Costs?  

It is notable that there is little said about the likely costs of this Inquiry but inquiry proceedings are far from cheap.  The Saville Inquiry - which lasted for 12 years - resulted in costs of almost £200m.  At a time of financial austerity, would it not be appropriate for the costs to be much more transparent?

Other blogs:

UK Human Rights Blog - Adam Wagner 14th November - "Leveson goes live"

Informm's Blog - "Law and Media Round Up - 14th November 2011"

Hugh Tomlinson QC - "PCC 2 is a complete non-starter" - he may be right !!

Informm's blog 25th October -  Opinion: "Lord Judge's misjudged references to press self-regulation" - Martin Moore

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