I Knew I was Being Lied to by Newspaper Editors Over Phone Hacking, says Sir Brian Leveson
The recently retired judge revealed he always feared the Leveson Inquiry was “unwinnable”
The judge who led the public inquiry into press ethics has revealed he ‘knew’ some national newspaper editors were lying to him under oath about phone hacking.
Sir Brian Leveson, head of criminal justice in England and Wales, made the unusually candid admissions at a public question-and-answer session at Oxford University with Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian newspaper.
On whether editors told him the truth from the inquiry witness box, Sir Brian said: “Some people did, some people didn’t. Do I know who I know didn’t tell the truth? Yes. Did I always say that in there? No. Not least because [at the time] the criminal investigation was still going on.”
Sir Brian’s powerful comments put pressure on the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service to investigate, among others, former Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace and Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver over the evidence they gave to the 2012 inquiry.
Both denied knowledge of phone hacking only to be found by High Court judge Mr Justice Mann in a subsequent civil trial to have been explicitly aware of the illegal news-gathering practice, as revealed by Byline last November.
Future Criminal Investigations
Under the Inquiries Act 2005, the penalty for “intentionally distorting” evidence to a public inquiry is up to 51 weeks in prison or a £1,000 fine, or both, although proceedings to prosecute can only be instituted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) of England and Wales, Max Hill QC.
On whether there should be criminal probes, Sir Brian said: “It is not for me to decide… it’s not for me to initiate prosecutions. I’ve done the job; other people have got to get on with it.”
It is interesting is it not, that The Sun newspaper has paid out millions to people who complained that they were hacked by The Sun, although we were told The Sun wasn’t involved at all?Sir Brian Leveson
In the wide-ranging Q&A with Mr Rusbridger, held at Oxford University in May, Sir Brian said: “At the time I thought I was not being told the truth [by multiple editors]… if you look sideways through this [Leveson Inquiry] report, I’m prepared to bet you can see it.”
He added: “It is interesting is it not, that The Sun newspaper has paid out millions to people who complained that they were hacked by The Sun, although we were told The Sun wasn’t involved at all?”
Sir Brian’s inquiry was divided in two in order to allow criminal trials to happen involving key figures at Rupert Murdoch’s News International (now News UK).
An initial “phone hacking super trial” in 2014 saw the company’s Chief Executive (and former editor of The Sun) Rebekah Brooks acquitted of wrongdoing at the Old Bailey after she denied criminal behaviour. Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was convicted of phone hacking, as were seven of his staff (two at a later trial). Other trials saw The Sun and News of the World staff accused of bribing public officials, which led to the conviction of 34 people, including nine police officers and two journalists.
But Sir Brian said: “Read the evidence, that the editors gave, in the trials they were involved in, and read the evidence that the journalists in the second trial gave, and I think you will find, they don’t live in the same world. So somebody somewhere hasn’t told the truth. Now that would have been an interesting part of Part 2.”
The Criminal Courts – ‘A Critical Part of Society’
Last year, the Conservative Government, as it headed into Brexit negotiations, unilaterally cancelled Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry.
On whether he got to the truth during Part 1, Sir Brian said: “Well, events subsequently proved I didn’t… there was nothing much about News of the World that we didn’t expose.
“But the editors of the Trinity Mirror [owner of the Mirror titles] newspapers, said ‘ooh, we’re not aware’. When you look at their evidence, it’s very, very, careful.
“Well we now know [why], because they have paid an absolute mint of money… to people who undeniably were hacked.”
In a separate interview with the BBC today, Sir Brian – who retires officially as the country’s most senior criminal judge when he turns 70 tomorrow – hit out at the failure of the justice system to prosecute criminals.
He told the broadcaster: “The criminal courts are a critical part of our society and they are the way that society reflects the minimum standards of behaviour which it requires of all its citizens.”
Sir Brian – who described as “not bonkers” his recommendations for an independent regulatory body to promote high press standards with the power to investigate serious breaches of editorial codes of conduct and sanction offending newspapers – said he always feared the Inquiry was “unwinnable”.
In the end, the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron refused to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which was required to enforce the Inquiry’s findings in full.
Sir Brian said: “It was unwinnable… because there were certain people who were running newspapers, who weren’t prepared to release the grip that they had on news, and it was a great pity.”
A Marked Man
The retiring judge said he knew he was inviting press scrutiny on his family and colleagues by accepting the job – but was still “appalled” by some of it and still feels a marked man today.
He said: “Did I know the way they [the newspapers] were going to eviscerate one of my assessors? No, I did not. Was I shocked by that? Yes, I was. Was I appalled by that? Yes, I was.
“But, to this day, I’m conscious that some newspapers, not all, would be only too pleased to be able to write something about me.”
The judge said that he also knew at least one newspaper lawyer had disguised phone hacking, which is an eavesdropping crime under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
He said: “It was a lawyer who had worked for one of the newspapers who admitted a story which he knew was obtained from hacking, to be presented as though it hadn’t been, and then when there was litigation, [he] did not come clean.”
Evidence emerging since the Inquiry from whistleblowers like John Ford, who worked as a specialist data thief for the Sunday Times for 15 years, suggested some broadsheet titles also had further questions to answer.
Admitting to having a “bit of a go” at the solicitor in question, Sir Brian added: “I was just professionally upset by what had happened.”
A public audience at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, listened intently, as Sir Brian said evidence emerging since the Inquiry from whistleblowers like John Ford, who worked as a specialist data thief for the Sunday Times for 15 years, suggested some broadsheet titles also had further questions to answer.
Sir Brian added that, even during his Inquiry, newspapers were intruding into private grief in breach of their self-regulatory Editor’s Code of Conduct “if the story was big enough”.
He related the case of Sebastian Bowles, a British boy killed in a coach crash while on a school skiing trip in Switzerland.
He said: “The school had set up a website for the kids to communicate with their families, and after this accident, certain organs of the press… published extracts from the website; private, really private communications, they published photographs from the Facebook page of the boy… they published a photograph of this nine-year-old sister of this little boy, clutching photographs, going to be taken to the scene of the accident. Now tell me which bit of the code, permits any of that? Well it doesn’t.
“So even while the Inquiry is going on, if the story is big enough, the rules went out the window. That was the business of those selling certain newspapers.”
Paying tribute to the bravery of press victims who volunteered to give evidence, Sir Brian spoke of the tragedy of a child murdered by a class mate in Scotland, whose conviction newspapers campaigned against, despite being told by the judge involved there were no grounds to campaign.
He said: “The press were telling stories that the victim had persecuted the defendant… the parents were distraught by this, they wrote to the judge and got a letter from the judge saying there was no provocation at all… and they took the letter to the editor, and said look, this is unfair, please correct it, and they declined to do so.
“And they had one other child, a son, and the son committed suicide, and in his hand, was the article about his sister.
“These are terrible stories. And how many of these do you need to tell to say there is something that is not right with the culture and the ethics of the press?”
Byline Times contacted DPP Max Hill, asking whether he was intending to start criminal proceedings under the Inquiries Act or whether he had any comment on Sir Brian’s remarks.
His office referred questions back to the Metropolitan Police, adding: “As this is a request for legal advice we cannot assist.”
Byline Times asked the Metropolitan Police Service whether it was starting an investigation but has received no response at the time of publication.