The inquiry judge himself has some questions to answer


by Kenneth Roy

A senior judge who was asked by the UK’s compromised prime minister to chair an absurdly wide-ranging inquiry into media practice – encompassing, for some unstated reason, social networking sites – is still hanging on, despite his attendance at two parties at the home of St Matthew of the Shadows, the son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch.

St Matthew of the Shadows is the nickname (because his public profile is so low) of Matthew Freud, son of the late foodie Clement, nephew of the recently deceased painter Lucian, great-grandson of Sigmund, husband of Elisabeth Murdoch, host of glittering all-night parties and a celebrated PR consultant who made his name with a nationwide campaign for JIFFI deLuxe Condoms. St Matthew handles the PR for much else of what passes for modern Britain – Asda, Bird’s Eye, Pizza Hut, Carphone Warehouse, Nike, Walkers Crisps, etc – collectively a veritable testament to the way we live now. Oh, I forgot the 2012 London Olympics – St Matthew, needless to say, is ‘leading’ the promotion of that particular pan loaf and circus.

In partnership with his friend Piers Morgan – whose reign at the Daily Mirror is now allegedly associated with phone-hacking, although as editor he knew nothing of it – St Matthew took over a trade journal called ‘Press Gazette’ and its British Press Awards, the prize ceremony of which has been described as a ‘soccer match attended by a club of misanthropic inebriates’ (ie journalists). Most respectable newspaper groups were so impressed by the takeover that they temporarily boycotted the British Press Awards, although the reputation of the annual booze-up recovered sufficiently to allow one of last year’s main awards to be conferred upon the News of the World, an accolade now posthumous in character.

At the height of his success – he may be slipping down the slope a little these troubled days – St Matthew was hailed as ‘a star in the new culture of public relations which came with the Blair years’. His trajectory continued ever upwards as his close friends David Cameron and George Osborne came to power. Just before the phone-hacking scandal broke, he was the subject of a fawning magazine profile hailing him as ‘the most powerful PR operator in Britain’ and ‘a brilliant networker’. As recently as January, the Independent speculated that Cameron’s other friend (and newly-departed press adviser), Andy Coulson, still ‘an attractive hire’, was an obvious choice for a senior job at Freud’s agency ‘with its tabloid-focused reputation’. Nothing has come of this intriguing idea.

Until very recently, St Matthew attracted few duff notices. One of the few occurred in March 2010 when he was involved in a semi-public spat with the actor Hugh Grant in a London night club, which ended with Grant’s white shirt smeared in chocolate cake. But it all ended peacefully enough: the night club gave Grant a new white shirt, the Walkers Crisp account remained undisturbed. What happened to the rest of the chocolate cake has not been divulged.

No one is impugning Lord Justice Leveson’s integrity. It appears that he is a good egg in the judicial basket. The Sun, one of Murdoch’s newspapers, once accused him of being a softie, which certainly counts in his favour.

It was in February 2010 – the month before the unfortunate disagreement in Annabel’s – that Lord Justice Leveson (the hacking judge, as he is destined to be known) entered the life of St Matthew. The two met ‘by chance’ at a dinner, and Lord Justice Leveson must have confided that he was about to become the chairman of the new Sentencing Council for England and Wales. I say ‘must have’ because it was only on 16 March 2010 that the appointment was publicly announced, along with an undertaking that the new council would ‘develop sentencing guidelines and monitor their use’.

As a result of this fortuitous encounter, St Matthew offered to advise Lord Justice Leveson on ‘how to promote public confidence in the criminal justice system’.

‘To that end’ (it has been said), and in his capacity as chair of the Sentencing Council, the judge attended ‘two large evening events’ at Freud’s London home (not to be confused with his country home, Burford Priory, where he and his wife recently welcomed such guests as Jon Snow, Robert Peston and Mark Thompson to their all-night summer party). The first of these large evening events was on 29 July 2010, the second on 25 January this year. Who else was present? No one is prepared to say. What was discussed? Ditto. In what way was the work of the Sentencing Council enhanced by the judge’s attendance? This question, too, is unanswered. There was no further relationship, we are assured.

No one is impugning Lord Justice Leveson’s integrity. It appears that he is a good egg in the judicial basket. The Sun, one of Murdoch’s newspapers, once accused him of being a softie, which certainly counts in his favour. Otherwise, the worst that has been said about him is that he prosecuted the chief of the diddy men for alleged tax evasion and that the chief of the diddy men walked free. Yet other questions remain. Why was it necessary to attend two ‘large evening events’ to obtain PR advice – would 11 in the morning across a desk not have been more efficient all round? What advice did Freud give him? Has it been acted upon?

And there is a somewhat larger question. Before Lord Justice Leveson’s appointment, the deputy leader of the Lib Dems, Simon Hughes, said on Newsnight how important it would be that the judge in charge of the inquiry had not ‘paddled in the same social pool’ as those he was investigating. Anyone watching the programme would have thought Hughes’s pre-condition axiomatic. I thought myself it was barely worth stating. But we are living in times when nothing, absolutely nothing, can be taken for granted.

Could it be that there is no judge in England (or, for that matter, Wales) who has not dipped his toe in the many waters of the Murdoch family? In that case, a judge from Scotland could be drafted in; there may still be time. But, with the Westminster parliament on holiday until heaven knows when – Halloween, I shouldn’t be a bit surprised – and interest in the scandal inevitably waning, it seems more likely that Lord Justice Leveson will be allowed to chair this inquiry, exercising the power to summon anyone he wishes and put questions to them on oath. Good heavens, I may be summoned myself, if only to account for this piece of impertinence.

It is a pity, however, that the good judge, when the opportunity arose, failed to answer legitimate questions addressed to himself.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.

Image by Bob Smith –