UK

Leveson Inquiry to 'shine harsh light on press ethics'

Lord Justice Leveson
Image caption Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry will look at the culture, practices and ethics of the press

As the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking starts on Monday, what can we expect the coming weeks to bring?

It's an unremarkable location with a fascinating recent history.

At the end of one of the corridors at the Royal Courts of Justice (there are some three and a half miles of corridors inside the building on the Strand) sits Court 73, a modern addition to a striking Victorian structure.

It was here that Tony Blair came, when prime minister, to give evidence at the Hutton Inquiry which was looking into the death of Dr David Kelly. Its findings led to the premature departure of two of the BBC's most senior executives.

The courtroom also played host to the, at times, painfully sad 7 July inquests and the, at times, poignant Diana inquest.

Now, it'll be the setting for a hearing which could transform the way newspapers operate in this country.

Harsh light

With the News of the World phone-hacking scandal still fresh in people's minds, Lord Justice Leveson has been given the task of shining a potentially harsh light on the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

After he has done so, and within a tight time frame, the Appeal Court judge must decide whether or not the way newspapers regulate themselves at the moment is satisfactory. If he concludes it isn't, he must come up with an alternative.

It will not be straightforward. Lord Justice Leveson's greatest challenge will be that he is, in his own words, "putting the cart before the horse".

Normally, inquiries are set up after something has happened; the dust has settled; and lessons need to be learnt. The Taylor inquiry, following the Hillsborough disaster, is just one such example.

Surprising absences

But Leveson will be conducting his work at the same time as police officers are continuing theirs. Fourteen people, most of whom are former News of the World employees, have been arrested by detectives seeking to establish if crimes have been committed.

The Metropolitan Police and the director of public prosecutions are worried that something said or revealed inside Court 73 might derail any future trials, if there are to be any.

Lord Justice Leveson will try to navigate a path through these concerns. The nuts and bolts of exactly what went on at the now defunct Sunday tabloid will be dealt with in part two of his inquiry which will only begin once the criminal investigation has ended.

Part one, starting on Monday, will paint a broad-brush picture of the News of the World and avoid too much detail. Leveson has already warned that there may be what some might see as "surprising omissions" when it comes to who will give evidence.

He has ruled that certain (as yet unspecified) individuals who are suspects in the police investigation need not come to the courtroom. But the senior judge is insistent his hearing can go ahead without prejudicing the police investigation or any prosecution.

Famous 'victims'

Central to this inquiry will be those who maintain they are the victims of the way the British press operates. According to their barrister, they are taking part not out of financial gain but to serve the public good.

More than 50 people who say they have suffered because of phone hacking or the activities of reporters which were either unlawful or unethical, will play a key role. They include the parents of Madeleine McCann; JK Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter; and the family of the murdered teenager, Milly Dowler.

Image caption The Royal Courts of Justice will be the setting for the inquiry

In the coming weeks, several of the "victims" will sit where Tony Blair, Mohammed Al Fayed and others have sat and give evidence. It's likely to be powerful and possibly damning testimony.

The former inhabitants of Fleet Street will also have their say. One way forward has already been laid out. In a rare public speech, Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail's editor-in-chief, delivered a powerful defence of the status quo - albeit, he acknowledged, in a "considerably beefed-up form".

He argued that the self-regulation overseen by the Press Complaints Commission should continue; his papers will acknowledge their mistakes in print every day; and he wondered whether a Newspaper Industry Ombudsman should be appointed to deal with press standards.

This proposal will be just one of many competing ideas that Lord Justice Leveson will hear about in the coming months. He'll be helped by six experts but the conclusions of his report will be his, and his alone.

He is acutely conscious of how reports can be published and then left to gather dust on a shelf.

"My fear", he said last month, "is that if you look at the history of investigations into these sorts of areas, over the last 50 years, rather more has been put on the shelf than has been activated".

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