Leveson's line on the good, the bad and the ugly

As he took soundings from lawyers earlier this week, Lord Justice Leveson served notice that he would run his inquiry into the hackgate scandal and media ethics very much on his own terms. With the odd put-down to barristers for sloppy briefs, Leveson set out the running order of his investigation and priorities. He will be nobody’s patsy.

The key players have already been dubbed in the corridors of the court either the “perps” (the alleged perpetrators) or the “victims”. Most of the narrative so far in the Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee proceedings and in the broader public domain has clearly been able to delineate between the two.

Yet, as events over the past few days show, the deeper the tentacles of the law intervene, the more confused some are becoming about rights and wrongs. The Metropolitan police’s questioning under caution of Guardian reporter Amelia Hill is the most serious known case so far of an embattled force struggling to understand the terrain. They probably did it in their state of confusion, without thinking through the ramifications. Instances such as this should not be repeated.

It is perfectly within the rights of any company or organisation to discipline an employee if they leak information without authorisation – although it is equally for courts or tribunals to determine whether that action was in the public interest.

There is absolutely no authority, however, to impinge upon a journalist’s legitimate work — the garnering of sources and subsequent protection of them. Hill is not accused of paying anyone for information or doing anything underhand or immoral. She has no case to answer and should never have been questioned. It is good that not only did the NUJ spring to her defence — as would be expected of it — but also the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. While not mentioning the case directly, he told MPs: “We must be careful not to overreact in a way that would undermine the foundations of a free society”.

One of the challenges for Leveson is to ensure that whatever measures are proposed to tighten procedures in the wake of the phone hacking scandal do not impinge on much-needed investigative journalism. A strong media is a bedrock to a healthy democracy and, as I never tire of saying: Look back over the past decades and ask yourself, have journalists found out too much about the activities of those with power or too little?

With that in mind, Leveson will need to help the forces of law and order to separate out the Amelia Hills from the spivs and crooks in league with bent coppers.


Hacking: Myler and Crone point to Murdoch

What very different figures Tom Crone and Colin Myler present in September 2011, compared with the chippy, brisk, pushy individuals who confronted the Commons media select committee in July 2009. And what a different picture they paint.

By way of a reminder, back then they began by attempting to have Tom Watson MP removed from the questioning panel on human rights grounds. Then Crone, formerly the legal affairs chief for the Sun and the News of the World, firmly told MPs: “In the aftermath of Clive Goodman and Mulcaire’s arrest and subsequent conviction various internal investigations were conducted by us.”

He asserted that the lawyers Burton Copeland, whom he described as “probably the leading firm in this country for white-collar fraud” had carried out an investigation inside News International in 2006-7.

Myler, the last editor of the News of the World, also spoke boldly in 2009 of Burton Copeland. They were all over the company at one time, he said: “My understanding of their remit was that they were brought in to go over everything and find out what had gone on, to liaise with the police…” He also pointed to News International’s own search of 2,500 emails in which “no evidence was found”. And he emphasised: “I have never worked or been associated with a newspaper that has been so forensically examined…”

Myler was “certainly not aware” in 2009 of any payment to Clive Goodman after his release from jail, and was apparently surprised when Crone admitted he had “a feeling there may have been a payment of some sort”.

It was a brazen-it-out, you’ve-got-no-proof performance. They were forgetful in some places and defiant in others, and generally gave the impression that they had done everything humanly possible to find out whether more than one rogue reporter had been involved in hacking, and come up with nothing.

Crone, moreover, gave the impression a lot of fuss was being made about nothing, dwelling on a remark by the police that there were only a “handful”of victims, and on a claim by Clive Goodman’s lawyer that only one story had ever been published that was based on hacking.

All that was in 2009. Both men — who as we know parted company with their employer over the summer — turned up this time in different mood. Indeed Myler, hunched over the table, appeared to be a different shape. They were some way short of contrite but they could not conceal that they were now playing on the losing side.

Little by little they conceded that, in truth, there were no internal investigations into hacking at News International in 2006-7. Burton Copeland’s letter on the subject could not have been clearer, declaring that the firm “was not instructed” to carry out any such investigation. As for the email search, another legal firm, Harbottle and Lewis, stated that that, too, could not be qualified as an investigation, while a former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald [an Index on Censorship trustee], has said that evidence of criminality in the emails was “blindingly obvious”.

And as we all know, too, there was more than one hacker. There wasn’t a handful of victims but almost certainly thousands. Lots of hacking stories were published. And Clive Goodman received a pay-off of £243,000.

The two men had little to offer in their defence. Myler said he had believed, wrongly, that there had been an investigation before he took over as editor, and then took refuge in blaming the police (not without some cause). And all along — this probably has the greatest long-term significance — he and Crone also firmly pushed the spotlight upwards, to James Murdoch.

If anybody thought they might meekly let James off the hook they were mistaken. The incriminating “for Neville” email was fully explained to the young News International chairman in a meeting in 2008, they said. According to Crone, now much more frank on the subject than he was in 2009: “I explained that this document meant there was wider News of the World involvement.” And “the effect of this document is that it goes beyond Clive Goodman”.

(This was the very interpretation that the Guardian put upon that document in 2009, and that the committee put upon it in 2010, a period when the likes of Crone and Myler were denouncing both as irresponsible and dishonest.)

The new Myler agreed with the new Crone about the meeting with James: “I think everybody perfectly understood the seriousness and significance of what we were discussing.” James’s insistence that he was given an “incomplete picture”, therefore, is directly challenged by the other two people who were there.

It is easy to forget that the formal purpose of these hearings is to establish whether the select committee has been misled in the course of its investigations into these matters since 2007. They will soon have to produce a report on that point — though probably not before hearing from James Murdoch again. As Crone and Myler must know, whatever else it may say, that report is certain to make very unpleasant reading for them.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London and a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart 

This article can also be read at the Hacked Off website