The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

I wish to take the opportunity to deal with concerns that have been expressed in the press about my approach to aspects of the inquiry and, in particular, to concerns that I have sought to prevent debate on its subject matter.

1. Shortly after 4.00 pm on Friday 15 June, Brendan Carlin of the Mail on Sunday contacted the Inquiry, outlining in broad terms a story that "an excellent source" had provided. It was made clear that the story would run (by implication irrespective of any response) but a number of questions were put. These were, and I quote:

"Can you confirm that following comments made by Michael Gove on February 21 regarding the 'chilling effect' on press freedom of the Leveson Inquiry, Lord Leveson (sic) contacted Downing Street?

"Can you confirm that he spoke to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood?

"Can you confirm that Lord Leveson expressed his concerns at the comments?

"Can you confirm that he said that if ministers continued to comment publicly in this fashion he might have to consider his position?

"Can you confirm that subsequent to Mr Gove's comments, he asked the education secretary to give evidence to his Inquiry?"

2. I addressed the approach to these questions the next day (Saturday) and I authorised following statement, which I recognise was faithfully repeated in the subsequently article.

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

3. On 17 June 2012, under the very substantial front page headline "Leveson's 'threat to quit' over meddling minister" and the subheadline "Fury of press probe judge after education secretary claims the inquiry for 'chilling' effects on free speech", the Mail on Sunday asserts that because of a speech made by the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP to the House of Commons Press Gallery as long ago as 21 February 2012, I made "an angry call to the Cabinet secretary", "demanded that the Education Secretary should be gagged" and said that "if ministers were not silenced", the inquiry "would be rendered worthless". It went on to say that I "summoned Mr Gove to give evidence to the inquiry to explain himself".

4. The story was picked up and repeated in other papers. It was further amplified in the Daily Mail on 18 June 2012, under the headline "Now MPs say that Leveson is stifling free speech" which repeated the thrust of the previous article and noted that Mr Gove had been "defended" by the Prime Minister on the day after his remarks. It also quoted two MPs: first, Mr Philip Davies MP as commenting that the intervention raised questions over my attitude to free speech and that if I was sensitive about criticism I ought to move aside for someone else, and, second, Mr Douglas Carswell MP as saying that my intervention "raises questions about the integrity of the Inquiry".

5. At the heart of this story are two allegations, first that I sought to prevent Mr Gove from exercising his right to free speech, including by making a threat to resign and, secondly, that I misused the process of the inquiry to summon Mr Gove in order that I could challenge his behaviour.

6. In the light of the story and the follow-up, I felt it appropriate to raise the matter in the Inquiry and, had I been sitting on 18 June 2012, I would have done so then. In the event, I was not sitting that week and I was conscious that section 17(3) of the Inquiries Act 2005 requires me when making any decision as to the procedure or conduct of the Inquiry to have regard (among other things) "to the need to avoid any unnecessary cost (whether to public funds or to witnesses or others)". In the circumstances, I decided to refer all core participants (who are entitled to raise any issues which concern them as and when they wish) to these articles and to invite submissions within 48 hours.

7. It has been suggested (in rather more colourful language) that my intention is to challenge the Mail on Sunday. In fact, my intention is and always was very different. The papers had, after all, felt it appropriate to make very serious allegations, expressly and inferentially to the effect that I had behaved improperly, challenging my position in the Inquiry. Usually, applications about the conduct of a judge in the exercise of his or her judicial functions (which, in view of their seriousness, are rare) are made in public to the tribunal against whom the allegation is made and backed by evidence; any decision can then be challenged on appeal. My purpose was simply to give Associated Newspapers Limited the opportunity to pursue the allegations they made on the front page of their newspaper before me; this obviously had to be done quickly and I should certainly have preferred it to have been sooner than the week that has passed.

8. In the event, to my surprise in view of the allegations that they had made, Associated Newspapers Limited, by their solicitors, asked for an indication of the specific issues upon which I would welcome assistance and any written submissions. It was indicated that core participants were offered the opportunity (without obligation) to offer any observations they had. Associated Newspapers Limited made no submission of any sort, and, more specifically, no application. Given the prominence that they had afforded this story, at the very least, I find that equally as surprising as their apparent failure to understand why I might have sought observations or submissions from them.

9. Unlike others who have been approached by the press in this way, I have been the advantage of being able to deal with these allegations in my own time and in a way that does not allow for confusion. Given the open and transparent nature of the way in which I have conducted this inquiry, that is what I shall now do.

10. When Mr Gove addressed the House of Commons Press Gallery, his remarks were widely reported and I asked for a transcript which was later made available. I do not need to set out what he said in detail but it is important to underline that he went further than emphasising the importance of freedom of expression and gave as his opinion that there is a chilling atmosphere which emanates from the debate around the Inquiry. He spoke of the danger of the cure that is worse than the original disease and the danger that "judges, celebrities and the establishment, all of whom have an interest in taking over as arbiters of what a free press should be, imposing either soft or hard regulation" and that, effectively, it is sufficient if we vigorously uphold the laws and principles that are are already in place while encouraging "the maximum of freedom of expression".

11. On many occasions throughout the hearings, I have consistently and repeated emphasised the fundamental importance of free speak and a free press. Further, I have recognised that everyone is entitled to an opinion on a topic such as this which is of widespread public interest and the subject of vigorous public debate. All are entitled to express personal views that they hold in whatever way and whatever circumstances they consider fit and Mr Gove is no exception. It is worth pointing out that many others have spoken about the inquiry and about me, both inside and outside the formal proceedings, and I remain entirely supportive of their right to do so.

12. Mr Gove, however, also occupies a position which has a critical further dimension. As he is a senior member of the Cabinet, a question arose in my mind at the time as to whether, in speaking as he did, he was speaking for the Government or reflecting the view (or the perception) of the Government that the very inquiry that it had established was no longer to be supported in its work. That concern was underlined when, the very next day 22 February 2012, during the course of Prime Minister's questions, there was the following exchange.

"Q5. [95251] Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesborough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): On Tuesday the Education Secretary that the Prime Minister's decision to set up the Leveson Inquiry was having a "chilling" effect upon freedom of expression. Does the Education Secretary speak for the Government?

"The Prime Minister: The point I would make is this. It was right to set up the Leveson Inquiry, and that is a decision fully supported by the entire Government, but I think my right honourable friend is making an important point, which is this: even as this inquiry goes on, we want to have a vibrant press that feels it can call the powerful to account, and we do not want to see it chilled -- and although sometimes one may feel some advantage in having it chilled, that is not what we want.

"13. It seemed to me at the time (as, indeed, the Daily Mail, on 18 June, has now sought to suggest by saying that the Prime Minister was "defending" Mr Gove) that the Prime Minister's response was open to the interpretation that he was, indeed, agreeing with Mr Gove's views. I also recognise that it was open to the interpretation that the Prime Minister was not saying that free speech was being chilled but only that "we do not want to see it chilled". Of greater concern to me was the question whether what he had said was or had become the government's position in relation not just to the effects of the Inquiry, intended or otherwise, but also that there there was a danger that I (as a judge) had an interest in taking over as arbiter of what a free press should be, imposing either soft or hard regulation, and that it was sufficient vigorously to uphold the laws and principles that are already in place while encouraging "the maximum of freedom of expression". What I did not appreciate at the time (but have been referred to in a submission by a core participant in response to these articles) is that Dr Martin Moore and Professor Brian Cathcart had similar concerns. In an open letter to the Prime Minister (published on the Hacked Off website at the time) referring to Mr Gove's comments and Prime Minister's questions, they sought an assurance from him that the Government was still "fully committed to the inquiry and its validity and need".

14. From my perspective, the issue was straightforward. Had the government reached a settled view along the lines that Mr Gove had identified, it would clearly have raised questions about the value of the work that the Inquiry was undertaking (at substantial cost). I recognised that the Prime Minister had said that it was right to set up the inquiry, but I wanted to find out whether Mr Gove was speaking for the government, whether it was thought that the very existence of the Inquiry was having a chilling effect on healthy vibrant journalism and whether the government had effectively reached a settled view on any potential recommendations. Put shortly, I was concerned about the perception that the Inquiry was being undermined while it was taking place.

15. Following Prime Minister's Questions, I therefore considered it both necessary and appropriate to make an enquiry to that effect of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. I received the assurance that no fixed view had been formed and that it was wrong to infer from the Prime Minister's observations any concerns or collective view. I fully accepted that assurance and made my position clear in a session of the Inquiry, when I said (27 February 2012, AM, page 4, lines 9-17):

"For the avoidance of all doubt, let me make it clear that I have no wish to be the arbiter of what a free press should be or should look like, and I have no interest in doing so. Publicly to express concern effectively about the existence of the Inquiry, when it was doing no more than following its mandated terms of reference, is itself somewhat troubling. For my part, given the background, I do not believe the Inquiry was or is premature and I tended to do neither more nor less than was required of me."

16. I turn to the decision to call Mr Gove to give evidence. The background is very simple. There was a considerable body of evidence to the effect that Mr Rupert Murdoch had expressed an active interest in education in this country and had involved himself in discussions about academy schools, with a view, potentially, to providing financial support for one or more such schools. To that end, he had engaged with the Secretary of State for Education. The extent to which he was offering support and the place of such support in his relationship with politicians was, in the judgment of the Inquiry, highly relevant to the terms of reference. The fact that for many years Mr Gove had been a journalist employed at the Times, and therefore was able to look at the relationship between politicians and the press from both perspectives, further added to his interest as a witness. The decision that Mr Gove should be asked to give evidence was made before his speech to the Press Lobby but there was obviously an opportunity, after he had made it, to invite him to say more about these views as well if he chose to, as indeed he did.

"17. One great value of the way in which the Inquiry is being streamed on the website means that everyone can see the extent to which I have consistently and repeatedly emphasised the critical significance of free speech and, in that very important context, can watch the exchanges that I have with witnesses and reach their own conclusions.

18. It is absolutely correct that the press should be able to hold this Inquiry, in general, and me, in particular, to account; the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail and those other newspapers that published the story are and were entitled to do so with whatever comment they considered appropriate. Having said that, however, it is at least arguable that what has happened is an example of an approach which seeks to convert any attempt to question the conduct of the press as an attack on free speech. For my part, I will not be deterred from seeking to fulfil the terms of reference that have been set for me.

19. I add only this. I understand only two well the natural anxieties of editors, journalists and others of the dangers of a knee-jerk response to the events of last July. Whilst I continue to state my belief in a free press at every possible opportunity (and not a single witness has sought to suggest that healthy and vibrant journalism is not essential to our society) I also understand that on every day of the Inquiry, every exchange I have with a witness will be analysed and considered in order to reveal a hidden agenda. There is none. No recommendations have been formulated or written; no conclusions have yet been reached. Testing propositions is not any equivalent to the expression of views concluded or others.

Thank you.

I now also hand down a decision which I shall not read on the applications for core participant status for module 4.

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