I suppose we shall have to take Lord Leveson’s word for it that he didn’t threaten to resign from his exciting inquiry. He says he didn’t, and that will have to be good enough for the likes of me. If I was an old school journalist worth his salt, I’d have hacked his lordship’s phone to find out exactly what he said to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. It was reported at the weekend, by the Mail on Sunday, that back in February Leveson threatened to shut up shop and take his big briefcase home with him, so annoyed was he at comments made about his inquiry by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. This was later denied.
Nonetheless, I’ve been told by one source who claims to be in the know that Leveson was ‘glued to the ceiling by an incandescent rage’ about the story and had been ‘biting off bits of furniture and spitting them out at people who came near, while growling in the manner of a lycanthrope’. I think this was not meant to be taken in an entirely literal manner, but was an overstatement for dramatic effect. More relevantly, I have heard it suggested that Leveson wished to haul the perpetrators before his little court and give them a roughing up, until he was persuaded that this might be counter-productive. Implausible nonsense, I thought, but phoned to check anyway. A spokesperson for his lordship told me that there had been a ‘brief discussion’ about the possibility of reconvening the inquiry to consider the offending article, but that this idea had been shelved because of the cost to the public exchequer of having to pay loads of lawyers to turn up again. So instead, I was told, Leveson will address the issue the next time the inquiry is in session.
The gist of Leveson’s complaint seems to be that Mr Gove’s observations could serve only to undermine his inquiry and it would be better all round if ministers refrained from making any sort of comment at all upon the whole business. This allegation has not been denied, and the government seems, consequently, to have assented to what you might consider a somewhat high-handed demand. Or request, whatever. As several others have pointed out, including the Conservative MP Philip Davies, there is something a little alarming in someone charged with preserving the freedom of the press, while investigating its undoubtedly nefarious practices, bridling at the mildest criticism of his inquiry and trying to gag those who would make such criticisms. And doing so, one might add, not in public, but quietly — one powerful lordship to another, see if you can sort something out old chap, really not on, etc.
It doesn’t augur terribly well, does it? It smacks slightly more of Brezhnev than it does of, say, J.S. Mill. You might even venture so far as to suggest, if you possessed a slightly melodramatic turn of phrase, that Leveson’s demand for a gag on ministers has helped to create a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression. As it happens, this is exactly the criticism Michael Gove made of the Leveson inquiry and so, by his previously unpublicised actions, Leveson has sort of proved Gove dead right. Bang on the money.
His lordship had already displayed a certain prickly amour propre when Gove appeared before his ever-expanding (in its apparent remit) inquiry. ‘Mr Gove, I don’t need to be told about freedom of speech, I really don’t,’ he snapped, when Gove had dared to raise an issue of principle. To which the only possible answer is: yes you do, Brian me ol’ son, yes you certainly do. Seeing as the Leveson inquiry is concerned not only with the appalling behaviour of journalists in hacking phones and the like, but also the unpublicised closeness between politicians and newspaper executives and therefore, tacitly, matters of transparency and openness, it might have been better if Leveson had simply stated, in public, that he thought Michael Gove was behaving like a bit of a twat and that such comments about his inquiry were not only unhelpful but might undermine the whole shebang. But he did not do that because, I suspect, an admission of such touchiness would have gone down very badly indeed with both the press and the public.
More to the point, I cannot see how Mr Gove’s comments — well expressed, and made in good faith — might ‘undermine’ his inquiry, as he tempestuously (or otherwise, m’lud) suggested. It is, after all, only what a large number of other people, mainly from the press, have said themselves. That it was coming from a minister who is himself a journalist by trade makes no difference.
Maybe once we’ve had an inquiry to sort out the rogue journalists, we can have another one to sort out the lawyers and the judges: Leveson’s approach to Sir Jeremy Heywood confirmed the suspicion that these sometimes flawed monkeys consider themselves utterly beyond possible reproach, part of an institution beholden to nobody which has no appetite for freedom of speech among the hoi polloi. If we were to have such an inquiry, I would have presiding over it Dick the Butcher and Jack Cade.
Still, we should be grateful that Lord Leveson didn’t stamp off home, because while his inquiry has caused misery to some of my fellow journalists — much of it deserved, some of it rather less so — it has undoubtedly added to the general gaiety of the nation. Who could fail to have been entertained by Gordon Brown’s grinning mentalism, or Tony Blair’s slick dissembling, or laugh until dawn at those emails sent between the Prime Minister and Rebekah Brooks? The only time the phrase ‘we’re in it together’ has had about it the ring of truth, I reckon. Without this wonderful parade of the mighty and the powerful, the fawning and the fawned upon, our newspapers would have been full of nothing but bloody Greece for the past four months. And perhaps the press would have still been kindly disposed towards the present government, instead of forever at its throat, liberated from quiescence because it was the government which foisted this inquiry upon them.