The Lord Chief Justice has defended the appointment of Lord Justice Leveson to lead the inquiry into phone-hacking and press standards following mounting criticism in recent weeks.
In a speech this afternoon Lord Judge said that when he was consulted over who should head the inquiry he put Leveson’s name forward after discussing it with senior colleagues, adding: “If he is the wrong judge to conduct the inquiry, that is not his responsibility, but mine. I have the utmost confidence in him.”
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One of the most outspoken critics of Leveson has been former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, who told a Leveson Inquiry seminar last week: ‘God help me that free speech comes down to the thought process of a judge who couldn’t win when prosecuting counsel against Ken Dodd for tax evasion and more recently robbing the Christmas Island veterans of a substantial pay-off for being told to simply turn away from nuclear test blasts in the Fifties. It’s that bad.”
Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre told the same audience that Leveson and his six-strong panel ‘don’t have the faintest clue how mass-selling newspapers operate”. The inquiry has also been criticised for not including any regional newspaper specialists.
Lord Judge conceded that Leveson had ‘trodden into a minefield’but was keen to point out that Leveson had only been asked to make recommendations – and had not been given a “blank sheet of paper upon which to promulgate regulations or constraints on the press”.
Lord Judge said he was in broad support of press self-regulation but admitted that an independent press would inevitably lead to some papers behaving ‘appallingly’and employing individuals who ‘in order to pursue a story will commit criminal offences”.
‘An independent press, or one or other of its constituents will also from time to time behave if not criminally, with scandalous cruelty and unfairness, leaving victims stranded in a welter of public contempt and hatred or uncovenanted distress,’he said.
‘But on the very same day one of the other constituent parts of the independent press may reveal a public scandal.
‘The scandal of telephone hacking which took the form of cruelty and insensitivity to one family and ultimately led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry was uncovered and revealed by a different constituent part of the press.
“The first of these scandals – the cruelty and unfairness – should never happen. The second – the revelation of a public scandal – must be allowed to continue to happen. My own view is that the public value of the second is priceless.”
Lord Judge argued that recent criticism of the Press Complaints Commission did not ‘automatically exclude self-regulation” but outlined a number of ways in which the watchdog could be improved – including a rebrand.
‘It is immediately attractive to suggest all sorts of controlling and disciplinary powers being vested in the new body – that it must not be a toothless tiger,’he said.
‘But we need to be careful. There is no point in a toothless tiger, but the concept of giving what would in effect be censorship and licensing powers over a constituent part of the press to a body vested with responsibilities for the whole of the press should set alarm bells ringing.
“And the problems would be aggravated by the fact that in a self regulatory body, at least some of the members will be editors of rival competing newspapers, and this might then call into question the fairness of any such adjudicating system. Should the body have power to prevent publication, or should its role be limited to remedies for publication without the code?”
Lord Judge said that while the new look PCC would continue with its successful conciliatory and mediation work, it must include all national and regional newspapers and remove the opt-out option.
Commenting on the membership of the new regulatory body, he commented: ‘I suggest that the sensible approach would be to avoid all government involvement in the process.
‘The choice of members and their removal should similarly be independent of government.”
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