Lord Justice Leveson began the third section of his inquiry by lowering expectations. Those who wanted “forensic fireworks” should turn to fiction, he said. And, indeed, the subsequent questioning of Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World who ended up at the right hand of the prime minister, was hardly the stuff of John Grisham. The limitations on the Leveson inquiry – running in parallel with a police investigation – were all too apparent.
Mr Coulson cut a calm, technocratic figure. One could hardly have guessed that he once ran a newspaper where – to quote his successor – there were bombs under the floorboards. We did learn that David Cameron was remarkably incurious about those bombs – and had sought no assurances from Mr Coulson, even after the Guardian’s July 2009 revelations, which demolished the one rogue reporter theory. He and George Osborne, who offered Mr Coulson a job just 15 months after the NoW’s curiously friendly exposé of the then shadow chancellor, seemed to want to hug Mr Coulson close at all costs – even excusing him from the normal vetting procedures for press secretaries.
Lord Justice Leveson also appeared to lower expectations of what he could reasonably say or do about the issues of competition and plurality. One can, to some extent, sympathise with the judge, who also said he was keen to get back to “productive judicial work” and has hinted that there might not be a need for the second part of the inquiry announced by Mr Cameron last July. He has much to consider and it is understandable why he should be shy of delving into further, technically complex areas of regulation.
But there are two difficulties with this approach. The first is the possibility that the inquiry will fail to find anyone to account for the extraordinary events that led to the closure of a newspaper and of multiple acts of criminality in the name of journalism. The Leveson inquiry has, perfectly reasonably, tiptoed around the whole issue. Many of those involved, it turns out, have poor powers of recall. Criminal trials may well establish some matters of individual responsibility. Whether they explain broader issues of corporate responsibility must be open to doubt.
The bigger question that Leveson must not dodge is the issue of plurality. This country was, in July 2011, within days of allowing a giant media company to become gargantuan. Rupert Murdoch bowed to the inevitable and withdrew his bid for BSkyB. But there was nothing in law then, and there is nothing in law now, to stop him. That is a dangerous and undesirable state of affairs and it is a nettle the Leveson inquiry has to grasp – if only by way of a strong recommendation that the law must somehow be changed. As we now see, dominance has a direct bearing on culture, ethics and practice.
Robert Jay QC’s masterly opening statement on press and politics dwelled on the vignette of the 1981 Chequers lunch, which preceded the Thatcher government waving through Mr Murdoch’s bid to buy Times Newspapers. Neither the press baron nor the prime minister had to say anything about their respective needs (Lord Rothermere yesterday indicated that would be “bad manners”) but each had something to gain from the other. Of course, no witness is going to admit the explicit truth of everything tied up in this toxic mixture of cosiness and its opposite: the implicit fear of exposure or effective blackmail. That, they will say, is one for the conspiracy lovers and Grisham readers. It’s probable that Leveson will end up short of conclusive proof.
But we have heard enough to have an instinctive understanding of what was going on – or, crucially, what our current laws are powerless to prevent. Even if Mr Murdoch were the saint his more devoted followers paint him to be it would still be a terrible idea to allow him to extend his dominance. He is old and doubtless soon to retire from the scene. Next time it could be someone far less saintly. That’s why it matters.