Lebedev and Barclay – media owners on the stand at Leveson

Two media barons took to the stand at the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon as the first day of “proprietors week” continued.

Evgeny Lebedev, proprietor of the Independent and the London Evening Standard stressed the importance of maintaining a free, strong and robust press, describing it as an “element of British democracy which needs to be preserved at any cost”.

He added: “Those who have committed crimes need to be punished. As we’ve seen in recent revelations there’s been an extraordinary abuse of power by the press and I think the outcome of the Inquiry should prevent that from happening again.”

Lebedev also expressed concerns that intense regulation of meetings between proprietors and politicians risks creating a society where elements become feeble. He said: “If the press becomes too feeble, we end up with a tyranny of consensus.”

He added that this kind of scrutiny would “completely change the balance of how things work in Westminster,” and agreed when asked if Lebedev meant that meetings between the press and politicians was “part of the discourse of politics”.

Lebedev explained that both the Evening Standard and the Independent both aimed “to support and champion world class journalism that is ethically sound, in the public interest and an aid to Britain’s democracy”, despite their differing political leanings.

Counsel Carine Patry Hoskins read the court an excerpt from an article published in the New Statesman from July 2011, in which Boris Johnson “gushed” about the oligarch: “I’m proud to call him a friend”. Lebedev told the court “there are varying degrees of friendship, but yes, I would consider him a friend.”

Stressing that he considered himself to be a Londoner, Lebedev added that he and Boris Johnson only discussed topics that “any Londoner would be interested in”.

Lebedev added that as they were operating within “the same sphere of existence” it was important for him to maintain relationships with politicians, including the Mayor of London, and the Prime Minister. He described meeting with Johnson, along with David Cameron, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and explained he would soon be meeting newly-elected MP George Galloway.

Despite his relationship with politicians, and his interest in politics, the proprietor told the court he had never been asked by the Prime Minister to support a particular political party or policy.

In terms of the future of media regulation, Lebedev supported the concept of a statutory underpinning, and said that every part of the industry needed to be involved, and added that “self regulation should not be shrouded in impenetrable jargon”.

Also appearing before the court, Aidan Barclay, chairman of the Daily Telegraph publisher Telegraph Media Group (TMG), described his relationship with politicians.

Accepting that the Telegraph is unapologetically Conservative “with both a small and large C”, Barclay described a “cordial business relationship” with David Cameron.

The court heard how Barclay sent a series of texts to Cameron, congratulating him on the birth of his daughter, and referring to a “daily call” to the paper during the elections.

Barclay described his relationship with Tony Blair as “relaxed and social” and added that despite Blair’s interest in the press, there was never any discussion of topics of an editorial nature.

He added that being in touch with politicians enabled newspapers to do their jobs properly: “It’s very important to me that the Telegraph is involved in everything that goes on. In 2004, when we arrived at the Telegraph, it was in a situation where it never spoke to the Labour party and had fallen out with the Conservative party.”

Barclay also explained that even though the Operation Motorman leak table contained no entries in relation to TMG, the organisation took steps to make sure no journalists had been involved with payment to private investigators.

In terms of regulation, Barclay said it was necessary to strike a balance between “some standards of operations”, but it was important not to destroy the industry through “regulation creep”.

He added: “I’m concerned that we don’t go too far in the proposals, rules and regulations can layer on top of one another”.

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Independent editor says Johann Hari will return to paper in weeks

The editor of the Independent has told the Leveson Inquiry that the paper’s reputation has been “severely damaged” following revelations that one of its star columnists, Johann Hari, had plagiarised articles.

Chris Blackhurst denied there had been a cover-up at the paper, noting that no-one had ever had any “inklings” or made complaints about the reporter, who is currently undertaking ethics training at Columbia and New York University at his own cost.

Blackhurst stressed that the “scandal” caused “enormous” and “profound” shock to himself and his colleages.  Hari was publicly suspended without pay for four months last year, having confessed to inserting quotes from other published work into exclusive interviews.

Blackhurst added that an absence of complaints meant Hari did not believe he had been doing anything wrong, but noted that there are “plenty of journalists who haven’t had training but recognise the difference between right and wrong”.

Blackhurst said if it had been within his remit to pass the Hari case to the Press Complaints Commission for judgment, he would have done so.

Blackhurst said he was “profoundly against state intervention or state control of the media”, but reiterated his support for a more “proactive” body, possibly with statutory backing. He added he would “certainly advocate” the fining of newspapers for breaches.

Lord Justice Leveson responded that a balance needed to be found, noting, “when you’re writing something you’re doing nothing more than exercising right to free speech.”

Praising the News of the World for exposing match-fixing in cricket, and the Daily Mail’s controversial coverage of then-suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder case, Blackhurst said he would be “very worried if the outcome of this Inquiry was an ability of this industry to investigate to be curtailed.” Leveson agreed such a result must be avoided.

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The Bureau, Bell Pottinger, babies and bathwater

The Independent and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism are winning deserved praise for their exposé of lobbyists Bell Pottinger this morning.

Bureau journalists, posing as agents of the Uzbekistan government, recorded senior Bell Pottinger executives boasting of their access to government and media. Bell Pottinger has previously worked for regimes with dubious human rights records including the governments of Sri Lanka and Belarus. An excellent piece of work by all accounts, and the Independent and The Bureau promise more to follow.

Bell Pottinger has responded angrily. The Times reports that Lord Bell (chair of Bell Pottinger’s parent company Chime Communications) has taken the matter to the Press Complaints Commission, describing the covert recording as “unethical“.

It would be easy to dismiss this with a wry “Well he would, wouldn’t he?“, but as the Leveson Inquiry goes on, there appears to be more and more unease with the shadier methods of journalism, which include covert recording, and Lord Bell may be attempting to tap into this feeling.

It’s clear that being recorded without one’s knowledge isn’t very nice. But it’s also clear that the Bureau’s investigation is in the public interest, and this should be enough to justify it. Amid the furore over phone hacking, surveillance, blagging and the rest, we should be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The murkier methods of the press have their place.