Great political theatre, but Leveson was a missed opportunity

Wednesday 22 August 2012, 16:03

Nicholas Jones Nicholas Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent for 30 years. His most recent book, The Lost Tribe, is about Fleet Street's industrial correspondents

Having spent most of my career as an industrial and political reporter working in competition with the Murdoch press, I found the public hearings of the Leveson Inquiry a disappointment.

Despite what seemed their best intentions, the judge and his legal team failed to get to grips with the insidious repercussions for other journalists of the culture of impunity which became entrenched once the News International titles were relocated to Wapping in 1986. An era of widespread illegality and unprecedented political collusion was finally brought to a shuddering halt in July 2011, once the public realised the full extent of the scandalous goings on at the News of the World. But the phone-hacking episode, although the most grotesque example, was only a symptom of a far greater malaise.

Interception of messages, unauthorised surveillance and the use of private investigators were techniques which had widened the flow of dubious information on sale to tabloid newspapers, a marketplace which had been dominated for so long by the proprietor with the biggest cheque book. Safe in the knowledge that all too often the politicians in power were too fearful to do anything other than turn a blind eye, the journalists of the Sun and its Sunday stable-mate had been encouraged for years to engage in practices which had driven down editorial standards across the media.

Lord Justice Leveson’s over-arching duty was to “inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press” and I had expected Rupert Murdoch, his editors and executives, and a succession of politicians, to be held to account in far greater detail for the ways in which they had conspired together to influence the news agenda, while also being content to overlook highly questionable conduct. Perhaps my expectations were overblown but Murdoch’s promiscuity in exercising political patronage, and his newspapers’ malevolent leverage over the daily headlines, had been a constant thread in all that I had written about the manipulation of the media.

Robert Jay QC Robert Jay QC From the industrial disputes of the early 1980s, on through the governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I had experienced at first hand the ease with which compliant politicians and their aides had assisted the Murdoch press in twisting the news reporting of the day to their mutual advantage, for the twin aims of party political gain and the advancement of his business interests. My hope had been that, if the inquiry was provided with an understanding of how this covert relationship had been sustained on a grubby, day-to-day basis, the judge would gain a fuller appreciation of the unspoken accord which had kept the door open to the relentless expansion of the Murdoch empire.

Needless to say I felt short-changed when the inquiry’s principal witnesses were allowed to skate over the origins of the malign influence of the Murdoch press. I found the interrogation was equally superficial when successive ministers and Murdoch’s editors and executives were probed about the closeness of their relationship. While the lead counsel, Robert Jay QC, could not be faulted on his skill in extracting embarrassing celebrity sound bites - and in staging some great political theatre for the Westminster village - he did not drill down with sufficient perseverance to discover what had been happening at lower levels of the food chain, at the interface between journalists and their unauthorised sources, spin doctors and the like.

By mid-July, at the conclusion of the evidence-taking sessions, Lord Justice Leveson conceded that in some respects the phone-hacking investigation was being overtaken by the “fast moving” Metropolitan Police inquiries into the bribery and corruption of police officers and public officials. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers was called back to give the latest figures (and she promised another update in September): there had been 41 arrests over alleged corrupt payments, including 23 current and former journalists (following the earlier arrests of 15 journalists for phone hacking). Others arrested included four police officers, nine public officials and five individuals who had acted as conduits. Two officers at high-security prisons were among the latest to be arrested for allegedly receiving payments from News International, Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers.

Ms Akers’ update was used by David Sherborne, counsel for 50 victims of phone hacking, to highlight his closing argument that the Leveson Inquiry should continue taking evidence after the completion of any criminal trials because it had heard “only the tip of an iceberg” and the public would not discover what had really happened inside News International “unless the stables are properly cleaned out”.

As Sherborne was delivering his final submission, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that seven ex-employees of the News of the World, including former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, had been charged with being involved in a criminal conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Murdoch was not on hand to comment, having taken the precaution three days earlier of resigning from the directorships of his British newspapers. News International said the move was “nothing more than corporate house-cleaning” after the decision in June to separate newspapers from News Corporation’s film and television interests. But Murdoch’s step-by-step retreat from his UK businesses had put distance between himself and any potential criticism of his corporate governance which might emerge in Lord Justice Leveson’s report.

In Sherborne’s opinion the public had witnessed, during the nine months of the inquiry, the unravelling of “possibly the most outrageous and largest criminal malpractice this country’s press has even known”.

There was no doubt in my mind that an opportunity had been missed by the inquiry: Murdoch should have been held to account in public for the way his newspapers had monetised the gathering of illicitly acquired information. Didn’t he understand that by condoning practices which had encouraged his journalists to pay cash for unauthorised disclosures - from the alleged bribery of police officers and public officials to the interception of voicemails - he had been progressively poisoning the well of British journalism?

Nicholas Jones supplied a witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry and answered supplementary questions, but he was not called to give evidence.

This is a shortened and edited version of an essay by Nicholas Jones from a second, updated edition of The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis.

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