With the conclusion of Module 2, the Leveson Inquiry reached its half way point. Module 2 has seen less celebrity glitz but there have still been some explosive revelations. There has also been, writes John Slattery, a distinct lack of balance.
To anyone who has covered court, there is something familiar about attending the hearings of the Leveson Inquiry.
It is housed in Court 73 in the rabbit warren of the Courts of Justice in the Strand.
The court rises when Lord Justice Leveson walks in and leaves. There are bundles of documents. There are ranks of lawyers and their assistants and camaraderie between the legal staff and court ushers who chat away in the breaks.
There is the exaggerated politeness of legal language as statements are forensically examined.
But there’s one thing missing – the case for the defence.
I’ve covered murder cases where the villain has been caught red-handed, made confessions to the police but still pleads not guilty and every piece of prosecution evidence is challenged – but not at Leveson.
At the start of Module 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, which looked at the relationship between the press and the police, the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner, Sue Akers, caused a sensation by claiming that "a network of corrupted officials" was providing the Sun with stories that were mostly "salacious gossip".
She said one public official received more than £80,000 from the paper, and regular "retainers" were apparently being paid to police and others, with one Sun journalist drawing more than £150,000 over the years to pay his sources.
"There appears to have been a culture at the Sun of illegal payments, and systems have been created to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money," Akers claimed.
Her statement went unchallenged, complicated by the fact that a police investigation is taking place and arrests have been made.
The Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, could only say in a statement: "The practices Sue Akers described at the Leveson Inquiry are ones of the past, and no longer exist at the Sun. We have already emerged a stronger company."
Stephen Parkinson, solicitor for Rebekah Brooks, commented in the Daily Telegraph after DC Akers had made her statement: “Normally, our system protects those who are suspects in criminal investigations reasonably well. It allows them to maintain their silence until there is either a trial, in which all the facts can be put before a jury, or a decision that there is no case to answer. In return, it restricts the circulation of facts, comment and speculation about their guilt or innocence.
“Witnesses have been summoned before both Parliament and the Leveson Inquiry. While those under police investigation have been permitted to maintain their silence on issues central to that process, others have been questioned with few restrictions. As a result, much prejudicial material has come into the public domain.”
News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee is co-operating with the police and has handed over emails that are said to identify payments to sources.
Newspapers have long paid for stories and tip-offs. They often advertise the fact in their own columns with details of how to contact the newsdesk.
Tip-off fees used to be common currency in journalism and were a way to ensure that a contact always came back to you and did not go to a rival. Payments were generally the equivalent of a drink in a pub or a bottle of wine, rather than the huge sums alleged by DC Akers.
But the public will be left thinking all payments by the press equal corruption and that it’s all about obtaining “salacious gossip” rather than stories in the public interest. I am sure payments by newspapers –including the Sun – have produced stories in the public interest but there is no one at Leveson to tell us so.
After the explosive start, Module 2 began to get a bit bogged down in detail on the flash restaurants where the high ups at the Met and News of the World used to meet and whether or not they supped Champagne.
Although the Inquiry was enlightened as to the basic entertaining the regional press now enjoys by South Wales Echo editor Tim Gordon who said of staff expenses at Trinity Mirror Wales: "The average journalist spends 71p a week on taking someone out."
As Leveson fatigue set in, some of the reviewers on Twitter took a rather jaded view of affairs, perhaps missing the celebs who had added a bit of showbiz sparkle to Module 1.
Commented one: “Season 2 has been a bit of a let-down. Slightly disappointing cast, not a great plot. I won't be pre-ordering the box set.” Another tweeted: “Can't remember who said it, but much like Fawlty Towers, #Leveson should have stopped after 9 episodes.”
But there were still some unexpected twists, such as the revelation that the Met had lent Rebekah Brooks an old police horse and, after some extensive probing into the so-called “horsegate” affair, that it had been ridden by the Prime Minister.
Leveson has shown the close links between executives at the News of the World and the Met and that there was a reluctance to go too deeply into the hacking allegations.
The police have argued that they were more worried about terrorism than hacking. Peter Clarke, the Met’s former deputy assistant commissioner, told the Inquiry that in 2006, the UK was facing an unprecedented threat from terrorism and his unit could not spare resources on investigating alleged criminality at the News of the World.
"Invasions of privacy are odious, distressing and illegal … but to put it bluntly they don't kill you, terrorists do," Clarke said.
Ex-News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis argued that wining and dining top officers was “the way of the world” for the national press.
Antipathy towards the Guardian
Within the national press, there are still great misgivings about Leveson and hostility towards the Guardian for exposing the hacking. This surfaced at the British Press Awards where the Guardian was shocked to receive only one gong after the huge impact of its hacking revelations and the paper’s journalists were taken aback by the palpable hatred and resentment aimed at them at the awards bash.
There are plenty of stories doing the rounds on the pressure journalists are under following police searches of their homes and the way they and their families were treated.
In a debate at City University on the “Lessons of Leveson”, Chris Blackhurst, editor of the Independent, suggested the Leveson Inquiry was "deeply flawed" and a "political response to political embarrassment".
Blackhurst warned should Leveson come up with recommendations for some statutory controls to underpin regulation of the press: "If it goes anywhere near Parliament, the MPs who were done over by the Telegraph on expenses could have their say. We could be in for a very torrid time."
The Independent did in a leader, however, welcome some of the work of Module 2, claiming: “The long-held sense that the UK does not suffer from the kind of endemic corruption evident, not just in the baksheesh cultures of the developing world, but in the France of Jacques Chirac and the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi, has been blown to smithereens.”
Not everyone fears some form of “statutory underpinning” to press regulation.
The National Union of Journalists supports it in the union’s submission to Leveson and sees it as a way of solving the “Desmond problem” – when a proprietor opts out of self regulation.
Professor Ivor Gaber, director of political journalism at City University, claimed: "Self-regulation with teeth needs something to back-up the teeth. We can't have decent regulation without a statutory framework."
Lord Justice Leveson had repeatedly said he did not want to interfere with the freedom of the press and often asks about the way that meetings between the police and journalists could be more “open and transparent” – for example if they were recorded in a log.
This suggestion has met with little enthusiasm with both national and regional journalists claiming it will put police off speaking to the press.
Broken lines of communication
The Guardian’s Nick Davies, whose investigations exposed the hacking scandal, told the Inquiry he knew of two recent cases unrelated to the hacking scandal in which police officers had been arrested for speaking to reporters without permission.
Davies claimed there was now a “backlash” following his allegations about collusion between News International and the Met, but insisted it was a “completely unjustifiable and unnecessary reaction”.
The ultimate effect would be to prevent any form of unauthorised contact between journalist and the police, he warned.
Davies added: “To close down all off-the-record sources is like saying I got food poisoning last night, I am never going to eat again."
Ex-News of the World crime correspondent Lucy Panton told Leveson: “From what I hear from my colleagues, lines of communication seem to have stopped between police and crime reporters.”
Sandra Laville, of the Guardian, also warned that there has been an "over-reaction" to the allegations about improper relationships between officers and journalists.
She told the inquiry she had found that "open lines of communication" with police dating back over many years are now being closed down.
Laville said: "The police force is a very powerful organisation in this country. They need to be held to account. We can't hold them to account by taking information from official channels only."
James Murray, of the Sunday Express, claimed relations with police were “chronically damaged” since the Milly Dowler hacking story in the Guardian. “Everything is on ice, frozen.”
Terry Hunt, editor of the East Anglian Daily Times, argued that logging contacts would make those police who are cautious about handing over legitimate information even more cautious.
It would be an irony if the impact of the Leveson Inquiry shining a light on the high-level contacts between the press and police ends up plunging everyday relations between journalists and officers into darkness.