Lord Justice Leveson has today responded to a Mail on Sunday story claiming he tried to prevent politicians from speaking out about the effect of the Leveson Inquiry.
The judge opened the morning hearing with a statement on a Mail on Sunday article, published last week, which claimed he had made an “angry” phone call to the cabinet secretary over comments made by education secretary Michael Gove on the “chilling effect” of the inquiry.
Leveson said: “It is absolutely correct that the press should be able to hold this inquiry, in general, and me, in particular to account… [but it is] arguable that what’s has happened is an example of an approach which seeks to convert any attempt to question the conduct of the press as an attack on free speech. For my part I will not be deterred from seeking to fulfill the terms of reference that gave been set for me.”
Gove criticised the inquiry during a speech to the House of Commons Press Gallery in February. Leveson said he had phoned the cabinet secretary after David Cameron appeared to support Gove’s comments the following day.
The judge added: “It seemed to me at the time (as, indeed, the Daily Mail of 18 June has now sought to suggest by saying that the Prime Minister was ‘defending’ Mr Gove) that the Prime Minister’s response was open to the interpretation that he was, indeed, agreeing with Mr Gove’s views. I also recognised that it was open to the interpretation that the Prime Minister was not saying that free speech was being chilled but only that ‘we do not want to see it chilled’.
“Of greater concern to me was the question whether what he had said was or had become the Government’s position in relation not just to the effects of the Inquiry, intended or otherwise, but also that that there was a danger that I (as a judge) had an interest in taking over as arbiter of what a free press should be, imposing either soft or hard regulation and that it was sufficient vigorously to uphold the laws and principles that are already in place while encouraging ‘the maximum of freedom of expression’. “
He said an open letter from Hacked Off - sent to Cameron to seek assurances over that the government was Government was still “fully committed to the inquiry and its validity and need” – had been drawn to his attention by a core participant.
He added: “I recognised that the Prime Minister had said that it was right to set up the Inquiry, but I wanted to find out whether Mr Gove was speaking for the Government, whether it was thought that the very existence of the Inquiry was having a chilling effect on healthy vibrant journalism and whether the Government had effectively reached a settled view on any potential recommendations. Put shortly, I was concerned about the perception that the Inquiry was being undermined while it was taking place.”
He said the education secretary had been called to give evidence before the February speech but it was also important he had the chance to say more on his views to the inquiry in person.
He said finally: “I understand only too well the natural anxieties of editors, journalists and others of the dangers of a knee-jerk response to the events of last July. Whilst I continue to state my belief in a free press at every possible opportunity (and not a single witness has sought to suggest that healthy and vibrant journalism is not essential to our society) I also understand that on every day of the Inquiry, every exchange I have with a witness will be analysed and considered in order to reveal a hidden agenda. There is none.
“No recommendations have been formulated or written; no conclusions have yet been reached. Testing propositions is not any equivalent to the expression of views concluded or otherwise.”
Lord Justice Leveson’s comments can be read in full here.