The former MP & Media Committee Member, who challenged Matt Hancock over Leveson II’s cancellation, writes:
“Members of Parliament speak with one voice rarely” – but they did when they committed to the Leveson Inquiry, in two parts
“Promises were made” to victims of corruption, that Leveson Part Two would take place
As the Government broke those promises, Matt Hancock (speaking for the Government) said that “Sir Brian [Leveson, the Inquiry Chair]… agrees that the inquiry should not proceed”
It was later revealed that Sir Brian “fundamentally disagreed” with the Government’s plans to cancel his Inquiry
“It was my view that Hancock had misled me in [Parliament]… what astonished me was his lack of contrition”
The Government’s desperate suppression of Leveson Part Two, justified by statements in Parliament which were “in my opinion… designed to mislead”, sent a message: “telling the truth in Parliament no longer mattered”
Writer and consultant, former MP for Wrexham (2001 – 2019)
Member of the Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, and Business Minister
PART ONE: The Commons Agrees – for now.
Members of Parliament speak with one voice rarely. One of those occasions was in 2011 when the House of Commons Chamber listened intently to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, recount the chilling history of the hacking of teenager Milly Dowler’s telephone following her disappearance and murder and what the Government he led intended to do about it:
“Clearly there are two pieces of work that have to be done. First, we need a full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police…. Secondly, we need a review of regulation of the press…..after listening carefully, we have decided that the best way to proceed is with one inquiry, but in two parts.”
This was to become the Leveson Inquiry and no-one in the Chamber that day disagreed.
From the start, this was a subject of special interest to me. Years previously, before I entered Parliament, I had acted as a lawyer for Trevor Rees-Jones, the bodyguard who was the sole survivor of the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales. I had seen Trevor, a victim of crime, seriously injured and unconscious in hospital, catapulted into the eye of a media storm. Those close to him, concerned for his life, were media targets too. Their lives were invaded by a press hungry for any personal information. Trevor’s family was treated as public property, with no regard to the impact on their lives, despite their intense fears as to Trevor’s fate.
When I saw Milly Dowler’s family in news reports, the Rees-Jones’s came to my mind. Then I saw that the unanimity in the House of Commons Chamber that day, created by the actions of newspapers lacking any moral perspective, was a unique moment. We could try to make sure that, in future, the ordeals of the Dowler family like Rees-Jones’ before them, would not be repeated.
I had seen the power of the tabloid press in the UK since my election in 2001. Even with very comfortable Parliamentary majorities, the Labour Government had worked constantly to keep newspapers, particularly News International, onside. Any policy pronouncement which alienated “The Sun” in particular was viewed by the Labour Government as reckless. Its endorsement of Tony Blair prior to 1997 had been perceived and presented as a seismic moment by a Labour Party scarred by 18 years in Opposition and frustrated by a largely hostile set of newspapers.
For me, this explained why it was that, despite Sun Editor Rebekah Brooks’ admission to a Parliamentary Committee in 2004 that her newspaper had made illegal payments to police officers, nothing had happened. There was too much to lose – especially the precarious support of the largest selling tabloid in the UK.
I saw what that meant in 2009. A weak Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was at the Labour Party Conference, working desperately to shore up support and inject confidence into a Party facing defeat at the General Election to come. I was in the room when the Brown team heard the news that Labour had dreaded since the 1997 endorsement – The Sun was shifting its support to David Cameron’s Conservatives and was doing so at a time to inflict maximum damage to the Prime Minister. A chill went round the room as I saw in action the political power News International had at that time.
The Dowler affair was so important because it showed that, despite all the political power of News International, that power had limits. Where a single, bereaved family had lost a child, the public would not forgive indefensible acts against that family. For any political party, whilst public attention was focussed on the Dowlers’ plight, the cost of supporting any news organisation responsible for such actions was too high.
I believe that it was for that reason, in the febrile atmosphere of the House of Commons Chamber in 2011, David Cameron knew that he had no alternative other than to open the Pandora’s Box that was the Leveson Inquiry. What no-one knew at the time was that, before all of its contents were revealed, the lid on Pandora’s Box would be slammed shut again.
PART TWO: Preparing the Ground
Promises were made. Most importantly, they were made to the Dowler family and to the other victims of phone hacking. They were made, eye to eye, by the Prime Minister to the victims. They were made in Parliament as well as in person. But the history of the Leveson Inquiry is of the gradual resiling from those promises until finally, they were broken. An unanswered question is was the intention to break these promises from the start?
On July 13 2011, however, Prime Minister Cameron was clear:
“We have decided that the best way to proceed is with one inquiry, but in two parts.”
Part One of the Leveson Inquiry proceeded on this basis, with the premise that there was to be, after criminal trials had concluded, in Cameron’s words:
“A full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police.”
The first indication that this was changing was in January 2015, junior Police Minister Mike Penning said:
“The Government has been clear that a decision on whether to undertake Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry will not take place until after all criminal investigations and trials related to Part 1 are concluded.”
That new position was confirmed by a statement by spokesman for the new Conservative Government, elected in May 2015 to replace the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, to the Daily Mail in December 2015:
“Yesterday, a spokesman for No 10 said: ‘We have always been clear that a decision on whether or not to take forward part two of the Leveson Inquiry will not be taken until all criminal trials [are over].”
A News International title followed up quickly the briefing which was happening from Government:
“Senior government and judicial sources told The Times that the second part of the inquiry into press and police corruption would never see the light of day amid limited political appetite for another lengthy and expensive judicial inquiry into Fleet Street and the Met.”
The Government itself now fed the untrue version of history:
“Leveson part 2 will not be able to take place until after those investigations and trials have concluded. However, as soon as they have been completed, we will formally consult Sir Brian Leveson, as he now is, as chair of the inquiry before announcing what is appropriate.”
Finally, in November 2016, under new Prime Minister Theresa May, the Government set up a formal consultation allowing the possibility of not commencing Leveson 2.
The heat of the original debate around press intrusion and the Milly Dowler Affair had long subsided. It was no longer the focus of public attention which had moved on to the Brexit Referendum and its complex aftermath. Three new political party leaders had, for different reasons, replaced those who had expressed such unanimity in 2011.
However, the first part of the Leveson Inquiry had been successfully concluded. Sir Brian Leveson had conducted the Inquiry in an exemplary way and produced a widely praised report. It was clear that any abandonment of Leveson 2 would have to overcome the substantial hurdle of the views of Sir Brian Leveson on its abandonment. That role fell to the new Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock.
I had followed the Inquiry with interest. In 2015 I had become a member of the Commons’ DCMS Select Committee tasked with scrutinising this area, following up my long standing interest in the issue. I was, therefore, watching out for the Government statement on its response to the Consultation on Leveson 2 which, after a long delay, finally arrived on 1st March 2018.
PART THREE: Breaking the Promise
In accordance with convention, the Secretary of State made an Oral statement to the Commons Chamber on that day. I was present in my usual place on the Opposition back bench. I knew that I would need to listen with particular care to Matt Hancock’s statement and I was listening, especially, to what he said Lord Leveson had said. I was at a disadvantage: I had no advance sight of the statement or any of the documentation referred to in it. I heard Matt Hancock say:
“Sir Brian, whom I thank for his service, agrees that the inquiry should not proceed under the current terms of reference but believes that it should continue in an amended form.”
Even at the time in the Chamber, I thought the wording of this sentence was odd. It suggested that Sir Brian agreed with the Government but goes on to say that he thought the Inquiry should continue, unlike the Government. What did this mean exactly?
It was impossible for me, or anyone else questioning Hancock that day, to know because we had not seen the detailed correspondence between Hancock and Leveson, a fact Hancock knew very well.
Immediately after the statement, I rushed to the House of Commons Library and asked to see the correspondence. I was astonished to read Sir Brian’s own words in response to the Government’s conclusion that Part 2 of the Inquiry should not proceed:
“I fundamentally disagree with that conclusion.”
Far from Sir Brian agreeing with the Government, he disagreed.
The moment in the Chamber had passed. The announcement that Leveson Part 2 would not take place had been made. Despite subsequent Points of Order in the Chamber pointing out that many MPs believed they had been misled as to Sir Brian’s views, it seemed the Secretary of State had got away with breaking a Prime Minister’s unequivocal commitment to hold Leveson II. I knew, however, that there would be another opportunity for me.
The Commons’ Chamber can be an intimidating bear-pit. It allows a backbench MP, however, only one chance to hit home, with only one question. With no advance notice and on a technical issue, like the terms of the Leveson Inquiry, one blow would never be enough. In contrast, Select Committee examination allows detailed questioning to take a matter to its conclusion. In my own Ministerial career, I found answering to a Select Committee one of the most difficult jobs, especially defending a collective Government policy over which I had personal doubts.
Matt Hancock was due to give evidence to the DCMS Committee later in March 2018 and I was determined to expose what I believed he had done – in my opinion he had misled the House of Commons, not inadvertently but quite deliberately, by use of specific language, designed to mislead. I was determined because I believed that this was not just a single event but the end of a long, planned, Government process over seven years, of resiling from the promises made by a Prime Minister, by a Government, to vulnerable individuals and families who were victims of an abuse of power. This would allow powerful businesses to continue to abuse people like the Dowlers. The unique opportunity to act which had been offered by the exposure of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone would have been lost.
I also knew that no-one else would have this opportunity.
PART FOUR: Truth Doesn’t Matter
On 14 March 2018, I began my questioning of Matt Hancock with the detail which I knew was vital. I had prepared very intensively, choosing each word of my cross-examination carefully, quoting the correspondence between Hancock and Sir Brian Leveson:
Ian Lucas: “When the Government corresponded with Sir Brian Leveson in December of last year they indicated in a letter dated 21 December that, and I quote, “We are not convinced the second part of the Inquiry is necessary”. In response to that letter of 21 December Sir Brian Leveson wrote back and, to quote Sir Brian Leveson, he said, “I fundamentally disagree with that conclusion”. Why did you not tell the House of Commons that?
Matt Hancock: We published the letter on the same day that I announced the conclusion of the consultation.
Ian Lucas: What you did, Secretary of State, was make a statement in the House of Commons. What you said, and I quote from Hansard, is, “Sir Brian, whom I thank for his service, agrees that the inquiry should not proceed under the current terms of reference but believes that it should continue in amended form”.
Matt Hancock: That is right.
Ian Lucas: You did not say that Sir Brian Leveson disagreed with the conclusion that the Government had reached.
Matt Hancock: Implicitly I did because I said, as you read out, that he believes that it should continue in an amended form. That is his position as he sets it out in the letter.
Ian Lucas: What Sir Brian Leveson said was that he fundamentally disagreed with the Government’s conclusion and when you made the statement to the Commons on 1 March you did not tell the Commons that, did you?
Matt Hancock: I said that he believed that it should continue and that was his position. Obviously he disagreed with my conclusion, which is that initiating Leveson 2 is not what is needed and not in the national interest.
Ian Lucas: He disagreed with you?
Matt Hancock: Yes, he did, and he wrote that to me.
Ian C. Lucas: What you told the Commons when you made your statement was that he agreed with you.
Matt Hancock: No, I said that he agrees that the inquiry should not proceed under the current terms of reference, which is true, and he said that he believes that it should continue in an amended form, which is also true. I think by saying it in the way that I did I explained his position. I did not use his words but I explained his position.
Ian Lucas: Secretary of State, I was in the Chamber for that statement and I was very concerned about what Sir Brian Leveson’s position was on this matter. When I listened to you my understanding was that his position was exactly the opposite of what you are now saying it was…….
Ian C. Lucas: Can I tell you why this is important? We have tried to proceed on a basis of consensus thus far on an important area of policy. You are a new Secretary of State and you stood up in the House of Commons and you represented Sir Brian Leveson’s position. I think you misrepresented his position and I have told you why. Sir Brian Leveson fundamentally disagreed with the Government’s conclusion. Those are not my words, those are Sir Brian Leveson’s words. Why should I believe you today?
Matt Hancock: Because everything I said then was accurate and I represented the position of his letter as a whole, that he believed that the inquiry should continue. I was standing up to explain that I thought that taking everything into account, all the changes since the Leveson Inquiry—all the changes in law, the fact that IPSO now exists—I decided that the best thing is not to have a backward-looking inquiry but a forward-looking inquiry.
Ian Lucas: I know what your position is. What I am saying to you is that you misrepresented Sir Brian Leveson’s position to the Commons on that day.
Matt Hancock: That is your view. We are not going to come to an agreement on it. I think I have faithfully represented it, as you read out. I can see that you would rather I had done differently.
Ian C. Lucas: No, what I would rather is that you had been straightforward. I am a lawyer; I know when particular words are drafted for particular purposes, and I think your words were drafted to mislead. That is what I think.
Matt Hancock: All I can say—
Ian Lucas: What I would have preferred would be if you quoted Sir Brian Leveson when he said that he fundamentally disagreed with the conclusion that the Government had reached.
Matt Hancock: I can see that that is your preference. I wrote my speech in order to describe his position and that is that.
Ian Lucas: My preference, Secretary of State, is for honesty and straightforward evidence. I would welcome that from you.
Matt Hancock: Noted.
Looking back now, three years on, this exchange was a big part of my decision to stand down from Parliament the following year. I was always told that telling the truth was a fundamental part of Parliamentary process for a Member. I remembered, even as a child, reading about John Profumo and how his career had ended because he had told a lie to the House of Commons Chamber. It was my view that Hancock had misled me in the Commons Chamber and I thought I had exposed it in my cross-examination of him. What astonished me was his lack of contrition. What also astonished me was how little interest the press took in the exchange. I do not remember ever being asked by a journalist about the cross-examination. It seemed to me that telling the truth in Parliament no longer mattered.