By Kenneth Roy
The longer the Leveson inquiry continues, the more it seems like a bad, ill-timed idea. Yesterday, Leveson himself was openly expressing doubts about where his investigation goes from here. Some of us have been nursing these doubts all along.
The cue for the chairman’s reservations was a statement by a barrister for the Metropolitan Police that there was no evidence Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages were deleted by someone from the News of the World and that the messages may have been removed automatically by the telephone company. This provoked Leveson into the following response:
It strikes me that this information is of significance, bearing in mind the importance of the original announcement in the context of the setting up of this inquiry. What I am keen to understand, therefore, and to think about, is how and in what way the inquiry should grip this information.
In other words (cutting through the verbiage): what am I doing here?
The inquiry is ill-timed because it should have followed, not preceded, any criminal proceedings. It is almost half a year since some of the main protagonists in this saga were arrested and released on police bail. Several were due to return to police stations in October; nothing was heard of that. Indeed very little has been heard of the police investigation in general.
Meanwhile, at least two of those potentially facing serious charges have heard (or read) damning allegations against them by a witness given the protection and privilege of the Leveson inquiry. It is against the interests of natural justice for a hearing under the Inquiries Act to give a platform to such allegations before those accused have had an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Presumably any future jury will be instructed to disregard the prior evidence, under oath, before Leveson. But the damage has been done. The accused have a strong case for arguing that their right to a fair trial has been prejudiced.
Why, then, was the platform offered, why was the evidence allowed?
Leveson now seems to be hinting that his inquiry has been somewhat undermined by the suggestion – without conclusive evidence either way – that there could have been an innocent explanation for the deletion of the murdered schoolgirl’s phone messages. I hope he is not suggesting that this is of more than marginal interest. I hope he is not suggesting that it changes anything very much. I hope he is not suggesting that, short of Milly’s phone being interfered with, the free-for-all with private lives can continue as before.
The judge should remind himself of the purpose of his inquiry: to ‘examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media’ particularly in relation to the media’s relationships with the police and politicians; and to make recommendations for the future of press regulation and governance.
The police say they have interviewed more than 800 people who believe that their phones were hacked by journalists or private detectives working for newspapers. By no means all of them are celebrities, some of whom might be considered fair game; they include victims of crime and terrorism. There are also grave allegations of systemic corruption in the Metropolitan Police, about which we have heard precious little in the opening weeks of this inquiry.
The specific allegation about Milly Dowler’s phone was a turning point in a scandal which had been rumbling for several years, tenaciously pursued by a Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, who endured the loneliness of the long-distance investigative reporter. The deleted voicemail messages became a potent symbol of the greater evil of media intrusion and criminality. They had, or ought to have had, no greater significance. It is Leveson who is conferring the greater significance.
The judge should remind himself of the purpose of his inquiry: to ‘examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media’ particularly in relation to the media’s relationships with the police and politicians; and to make recommendations for the future of press regulation and governance. The inquiry has been shockingly unfocussed in its interpretation of the first part of this remit. It has become a forum for a ragbag of grievances.
Among the first witnesses it called were a couple from Glasgow understandably upset by an insensitive opinion piece written 20 years ago about their daughter’s murder. There was no right of reply for the retired columnist who was left to hear of the allegations against him in a telephone call from myself. Nor am I aware of any public statement by Leveson’s six advisers, including that well-known champion of civil liberties Shami Chakrabarti, that there is something inherently unjust about a procedure which allows a reputation to be destroyed without possibility of reparation.
‘How can this man live with himself?’, asked a columnist in the Daily Telegraph whose command of the story was so impressive that she described the culprit as a tabloid reporter. Wrong on both counts. In this way the poison dripped before the Leveson inquiry enters the bloodstream of the watching crowd. But at least the retired columnist does not risk imprisonment for voicing a misguided opinion. That may come later when the new regime of press regulation is introduced to popular acclaim.
It appears that this inquiry will drag well into the new year. The damage it has already done is considerable. The issue today is not who deleted Milly Dowler’s phone messages. The issue is the inquiry itself.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review