Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times has got itself into a revealing tangle about Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry, accidentally demonstrating why the case for it is so strong even though company policy is to oppose it.
An article on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry by Jon Ungoed-Thomas, ‘Vital Grenfell evidence may be withheld’, highlighted the difficulty of probing the causes of the tragedy at a time when police are still investigating. The Inquiry can’t get in the way of possible criminal proceedings, the reporter explained, and witnesses who fear possible charges may refuse to answer questions.
Then came this short paragraph: ‘The Leveson Inquiry into the press in 2011 and 2012 was split into two parts to avoid jeopardising criminal investigations. In the event, the second part was scrapped.’
As it happens it hasn’t been scrapped, but we’ll come back to that. Where Ungoed-Thomas got it right was in illustrating the very good grounds for having a second part.
Just as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry must get under way swiftly even if some aspects of its work may have to be deferred to later, so the Leveson Inquiry had to make a start in 2011 without the immediate prospect of being able to call to account those behind such criminal activities as phone hacking and bribery.
As will happen in due course with Grenfell Tower, so in the Leveson case all the criminal cases were eventually wrapped up and the way is now clear for us to learn how newspaper companies sank into the mire of criminality, who was to blame and what has been done to ensure it won’t happen again.
There will also be an opportunity to review progress on implementing the recommendations of Part One, and so to assess the failure of IPSO and its consequences in terms of rampant inaccuracy and hate language in the press.
It is helpful of the Sunday Times to demonstrate in this way why a delay, though regrettable, is sometimes necessary, and also why the delay should not be used as an excuse for abandoning scrutiny – no one wants that to happen in the Grenfell Tower case, and nor should it in the Leveson case.
As for Leveson Part Two having been ‘scrapped’, Ungoed-Thomas is misinformed. Before the election last June, Theresa May did indeed bow disgracefully to newspaper pressure and include in her party’s manifesto a promise to scrap it. She has not, however, done so.
One of several obstacles in her path is a legal obligation to consult Sir Brian Leveson first. Section 5, paragraph 4 of the Inquiries Act 2005 requires any government seeking to alter the terms of reference of an existing inquiry to consult the chair, and Sir Brian is still the chair, even though he is unlikely to chair Part Two.
If he had already been consulted by the government it is a racing certainty that we would know about it because his report made very clear his view that openness and transparency were vital in such matters. Further, it is a very good bet indeed, given the content of his report and what has happened since, that the judge would publicly make the case for Part Two to go ahead.
While he does not have a veto, it would at least be very uncomfortable for this minority government to seek to scrap the inquiry in the teeth of publicly expressed opposition from one of the country’s most senior judges. It does not help ministers, either, that the Commons Media Select Committee has unanimously called for Part Two to go ahead.
It is not as though ministers can point to the adequacy of IPSO or the good behaviour of newspapers as an excuse for abandoning the inquiry. IPSO, the industry’s tame regulator, has never looked more feeble than in recent weeks. It has received many complaints about outrageous instances of inaccuracy and incitement to religious and racial hatred, notably at Murdoch papers, and the whole world knows that it will do nothing that will make any difference.
Hacked Off has also published an eloquent account of IPSO’s failure to secure front-page corrections for front-page errors, despite ardent promises it would deliver these.
Ungoed-Thomas’s bosses at the Sunday Times have had recent reason to wish that Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry had indeed been scrapped. The paper’s Irish edition published anti-Semitic views worthy of Goebbels, and although the columnist was sacked, the editor, Martin Ivens, has never given any public account of how the article found its way into his paper and what, if anything, he has done to ensure it won’t happen again. That is just the kind of failure that would interest Leveson Part Two.