Leveson 'quit threat' over Michael Gove attack

The judge leading the investigation into media ethics in the wake of the phone hacking scandal was poised to quit following a public attack on the probe by the Education Secretary, it was reported yesterday.

Lord Justice Leveson complained to Downing Street's most powerful civil servant about claims made by Michael Gove that the inquiry had created a "chilling atmosphere" towards freedom of the Press, according to the Mail on Sunday.

In a telephone call with Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood he called for the Tory to be "gagged" and warned the inquiry was being undermined, it said.

Sir Jeremy is reported to have told Prime Minister David Cameron about the conversation.

"Our clear impression was that he was spitting tacks with Gove and was ready to resign unless the Minister was told to shut up," a Government source told the newspaper.

Gove, a former journalist at the News Corporation-owned Times, told a Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch in February that he saw "dangers" in the inquiry into press cultures, practices and ethics.

Lord Justice Leveson instructed his officials to compile a full report of the comments and he phoned Sir Jeremy within 24 hours, it was reported.

Called to give evidence at the inquiry last month, the Conservative Cabinet Minister went on to make an even more robust assessment about the potential outcome of the probe, warning the judge that inquiry recommendations were often "applied in a way that the cure is worse than the disease".

The pair then clashed when Gove raised concerns about restraints on the "precious liberty" of freedom of speech. In an apparent slap down, Lord Justice Leveson said: "I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don't."

Earlier this week he opened the hearings by warning it was "essential" cross-party political support for his investigation was "not jeopardised".

A Leveson Inquiry spokesman said: "Lord Justice Leveson is conducting a judicial inquiry and, in that capacity, will not comment on press stories outside the formal proceedings of the inquiry."

Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and Gove's spokesman all refused to comment.

Meanwhile, former business secretary Lord Mandelson said a "wry smile flickered across my visage" when he heard Gordon Brown's evidence to the inquiry on negative briefings to the Press.

The former prime minister said he had "never sanctioned" advisers to feed newspapers information about predecessor Tony Blair.

Lord Mandelson also suggested Mr Blair would be "relieved" he did not use a mobile phone while in office in light of the text messages sent and received by politicians that have been revealed by the inquiry in recent weeks.

He told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "Certainly David Cameron looking back over the last week I think will be regretting the extent to which he lowered his guard towards the blandishments of the Murdoch machine.

"But equally I don't think anyone in the political class has anything particularly to be proud of in how they have acted towards Murdoch."

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