Analysis: Michael Gove gets under Leveson's skin

Michael Gove impressed Tory colleagues with his defence of press freedom and Rupert Murdoch

Michael Gove worked as a journalist on the Times for 10 years so it came as no surprise that he launched a robust defence of his former trade and former boss Rupert Murdoch.

But in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and the months of sustained attack on News International, it was striking nonetheless to hear the education secretary describe Mr Murdoch as one of the most significant figures of the last 50 years.

He was unapologetic about his links with News Corporation and happily recalled various breakfast, lunch and dinner dates with the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has often been described as the Murdochs' cheerleader in government but after this performance Mr Gove could surely compete for the title.

He did however deny that he discussed the controversial BSkyB bid with his friends at News International and insisted that he didn't give it any particular attention.

With smatterings of Latin and a full range of historical and literary references, this was a confident and articulate display, although his detractors feel Mr Gove often verges on the smug.

'Chilling' effect

He is one of the highest profile libertarians in his party and he gave a passionate defence of the right of freedom of speech. But the suggestion that it counted for nothing unless some people were offended some of the time, clearly got under Lord Justice Leveson's skin.

The long, tense exchange that followed between the two men got to the very heart of the argument that Leveson is wrestling with - whether new laws and regulation will be needed to rein in the press.

The background to all this is a speech Mr Gove made a few months ago when he warned that the Leveson inquiry could have a "chilling" effect on press freedoms.

The education secretary has expressed his concern that the case for liberty could be drowned out by the anger over phone hacking. This performance in the witness box ensures that that argument will be heard and his close relationship with the prime minister means it's a message that will go right to the top once the inquiry reaches its conclusion.

And Mr Gove hasn't done his reputation any harm; after his evidence session Tory MPs took to Twitter to express their admiration.

The joke around Westminster is that the education secretary has just launched his bid to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.

Heaping praise on the Sun, the Times and the Daily Mail would certainly give him a head start.

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