The details for my appearance at the Leveson Inquiry arrive. ‘If Mr Walters is content to walk through the public entrance to the RCJ, Bell Yard North One is closest to the Hearing Room. Could you provide names of anyone accompanying Mr Walters in order that we can reserve seats in the public gallery.’ It sounds like a passage from A Tale of Two Cities. David Davis calls with advice on how to conduct myself in the dock. He says he gave similar coaching to Alastair Campbell before his fateful encounter with the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee over the David Kelly affair, which is slightly unsettling, given my views on Campbell. ‘Be pinstriped professional,’ says Davis, ‘not Essex boy.
Friday: I’m on the 8.51 Paddington to Oxford with my editor Geordie Greig to interview David Cameron. Sat at a table in first class, Cameron looks disturbingly sleek and fit as he works through his red box. ‘Up before Leveson on Monday, aren’t we? Need some advice?’ he chuckles. He is accompanied by his leggy spin doctor Gabby Bertin and three plain-clothed policemen in front and back. Commuters can hear the interview; the trolley lady trundles past offering tea and fruitcake. The PM talks about his determination to cut welfare. I recall hearing the same words from Tony Blair on a plane to South Africa at the same stage in his premiership.
The next day, the editor and I write up our interview. I go to a party with friends from my old choir, who sing rousing sea shanties in the beer tent. Back home, I mull over what I will say to the Leveson Inquiry on Monday. Mail on Sunday lawyers tell me to stay away from the court on Monday morning when Leveson addresses my report into how he threatened to quit over Michael Gove’s comments about the ‘chilling effect’ of the inquiry. Will the mere sight of me annoy him? He wouldn’t even recognise me.
Monday. I am up before Lord Justice Leveson at 3 p.m. He opens the sitting with a rambling statement about my ‘Leveson threat to quit’ story. Yes, he called the Cabinet Secretary; yes, he expressed concern about Gove’s remarks; yes, he said the inquiry would be pointless if that were the government’s view. He does not say: ‘I threatened to quit.’ But judges don’t speak like that, newspapers do, and are entitled to when borne out by the facts. More importantly, No. 10 was convinced of it. My old Mail on Sunday boss Peter Dobbie used to say: ‘Never raise your arm in victory.’ So I resist the temptation. I arrive at the Royal Courts of Justice and avoid lunch, too worried about spilling salad cream down my new M&S shirt and plain blue tie. I meet my Leveson interrogator, Carine Patry Hoskins. Should I be insulted I have not been given top man Robert Jay? She offers a rough outline of what she intends to ask. The judge has decided he has said enough about my story so she will skip that. Her main interest is the ‘blurring of news and comment’. She says she will not try to trip me up with specific stories. I sit in the inquiry room alongside Jon Snow of Channel 4 who is up before me. We talk about how Channel 4 and the Mail on Sunday led the field in 2005 in breaking the story of the Attorney General’s legal advice on the Iraq war. Yet when Snow takes the stand, he launches into an attack on Associated Newspapers. ‘A powerful contribution,’ says Lord Justice Leveson, approvingly, as Snow makes way for me.
Have I been set up? The judge bears a less welcoming demeanour when I take the stand. He wryly apologises to the assembled press mob for denying them the spectacle of him giving me three of the best in public, and I meekly obey his headmasterly invitation to dismiss ‘nonsense’ reports that I had been summoned over the story. Yes sir, I was summoned before the story was printed. As I talk about the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) having been effective in a particular case, Leveson shakes his head. Any mention of those three initials and his centipede eyebrows start writhing. Ms Patry Hoskins tries to get me to admit that I blur the lines between news and comment. I refute it. She goes back on what I took to be her promise not to throw examples at me and does precisely that. She is not sure, however, whether they were in the paper or online. Friends tell me later she looked flustered. My interrogation ends with further evidence of the inquiry’s worrying ignorance of Fleet Street: Leveson asks how headlines are written, seemingly unaware they are composed by sub-editors, not reporters. All Mail on Sunday headlines are composed with very great skill and care, I say. Tim the chief sub would kill me if I said anything else.
Simon Walters is political editor of the Mail on Sunday.