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Leveson and Chilcot: Contrast and Compare

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LEVESON

As a former Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), I have been following the Leveson inquiry with more than a little interest. It is a curious animal.

Inquiries are raining down on my head thick and fast. First, there was Chilcot, which is looking into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war (and has - for the second time - postponed its conclusions, this time until autumn 2012).

I have also been up before the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, a notably vacuous occasion with sparse attendance by desperately under-briefed Lords and MPs.

I have no idea whether I will be called to give evidence to Leveson. I am not holding my breath.

Considering that his Inquiry is in good part a judgement on the PCC, Leveson has so far shown an eccentric aversion to anyone who has direct experience of actually working at the organisation.

It is not only perverse to have no-one from the regional and tabloid press on his advisory panel. He would also have benefited from the presence of a former independent, i.e. non-editorial, member of the commission to explain its inner workings and judgements. But, with the glorious exception of the Lord Chief Justice himself, the legal profession's attitude towards the PCC is to be found somewhere between suspicion and outright hostility.

There is one conundrum that has gone strangely unnoticed. This is the contrast between the ways in which Chilcot and Leveson have been set up.

Evidence given to the former was not on oath and there were no criminal sanctions for declining to appear before Chilcot or provide a witness statement. Leveson, in the meantime, is backed by the full majesty of the law, namely the Inquiries Act 2005.

I received a letter from the solicitor to the Inquiry instructing me to provide a witness statement under pain of criminal prosecution if I failed to meet the deadline (despite the avowed urgency of the matter, the letter took a leisurely eight days to reach me).

Now, while phone-hacking and press ethics are not unimportant matters, they surely cannot compete with war and peace, which is what Chilcot is all about why and how the Iraq invasion was launched and the occupation so poorly handled.

Yet we learn from Chilcot himself that one of the reasons for the delay in publishing his report is that the government will not permit the declassification of papers that will make sense of the report's conclusions. Among these, so it is suggested, are the personal messages from Blair to Bush. They are indispensable for understanding Britain's decision to go into Iraq with the Americans.

If Chilcot is not allowed to append them to his report - a full decade after they were written - the quality of his conclusions will be sorely prejudiced. Once again the UK shows itself to be infinitely more secretive than the US.

Chilcot is Leveson's poor relation. No expense is spared in the Lord Justice's Inquiry, with its full panoply of QCs billing the government the generous fees that top London barristers charge. We taxpayers must be thankful for small mercies and sigh with relief that this part of the Leveson inquiry must conclude by the summer of 2012.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions Leveson draws on press regulation. He has virtually been told by the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and Mr. Justice Tugendhat not to go down the path of statutory regulation or a privacy law.

So, if it is going to be a form of non-statutory regulation, how will he give it more 'teeth'? Fines are not the easy answer they may seem to be.

The Joint Committee to which I was summoned got all excited about coming up with a definition of the public interest. I hope that Leveson does not try that. It is the road to perdition. People will argue until the end of time where the line should be drawn between the public and private spaces. There is no absolute definition for all seasons. That is another reason why a privacy law would be no improvement on judges' interpretation of Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act.

Here is another conundrum. The second part of Levison's brief is to look into phone-hacking.

But, hang on a minute - isn't that what the Metropolitan Police are doing right now in Operation Weeting at vast cost (millions of pounds) to the taxpayer? Haven't the police already expressed their concern that the Inquiry could prejudice the integrity of their investigation? Whence this overkill?

There is the cloud of political expediency, even panic, hanging over Levison from last summer, the echo of media advisers whispering into the ears of senior Coalition politicians to get on top of the Coulson story, get ahead of the curve, kick into the long grass etc...

Meanwhile the parade of core witnesses goes on. I hope that we may yet see among them some of the hundreds, maybe thousands, who have benefited from the PCC's anti-harassment and pre-publication action. That'll be the day.

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