Two events in the past week show the importance of the Leveson Inquiry reconvening to complete its second report. The Leveson inquiry was set up by British Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2011 at the height of the phone hacking scandal centered on Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper.
Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry became, as he said in his report, ‘the most public and the most concentrated look at the press that this country has seen’. The proceedings provided many riveting moments as in nine months of oral hearings 337 witnesses gave evidence, including victims of phone hacking. Four prime ministers and a variety of politicians and media figures, including Rupert and James Murdoch also testified and were cross-examined.
In November 2012, Leveson published a four volume, almost 2000 page report. It recommended a system of press accountability with a statutory basis. Cameron, having earlier promised to implement the reforms, immediately surrendered to the press proprietors’ lobbying and there have been only very partial moves since towards reform.
Leveson’s report was part one. The second part – looking in detail at News and its web of contacts – was indefinitely delayed because of the necessity to refrain from any publication which would prejudice criminal proceedings. It has been widely assumed that the second part would never be done.
Now, however, almost three years later, all the major criminal prosecutions are completed, and there is still a need for an authoritative and comprehensive report.
The legal record over the last few years has yielded some convictions and some important revelations, but also a series of unanswered questions. The most famous trial, the longest completed criminal trial in British history, involved eight defendants, including Rebekah Brooks, on a total of 15 charges. It was also the best funded defence in British history, with some estimates that Murdoch spent more than £30 million pounds, so that the defence was much more lavishly resourced than the prosecution. This eight month trial produced only one guilty verdict, with former News of the World editor and staff member for Prime Minister Cameron, Andy Coulson, sent to jail. It is important to recall however that after those proceedings, there were eight guilty verdicts or guilty pleas to do with phone hacking, and two acquittals (Rebekah Brooks and Stuart Kuttner).
On charges to do with newspapers bribing officials, codenamed Operation Elveden by the police, dozens of journalists were arrested, but as of now, I think, only one has been convicted – two others were convicted but those convictions were overturned on appeal. The toll among public servants has been greater, and they are subject to much greater legal hazard than journalists. The case of Bettina Jordan-Barber illustrates the difference.
Jordan-Barber, a Ministry of Defence official, received around £100,000 over nine years from the Sun newspaper. She was sentenced to 12 months jail. Rebekah Brooks, when she was editor of the Sun from 2003 to 2006, authorized eleven payments totaling £38,000. Brooks testified that it never occurred to her that the person, whom her reporter referred to in his emails as my ‘number one military contact’ and ‘ace military source’ might actually be a public official. She was found not guilty.
Later, that reporter, John Kay, 71, and two of his editors were also found not guilty. Kay had arranged 35 payments to Jordan-Barber for tips linked to 69 stories. The jury members were convinced that the leaks were in the public interest. It is not clear whether the jury looked at all 69 stories, but it seems they must have taken a very broad view of what constitutes public interest.
One of the two events of the past week which indicate that the Leveson inquiry should be reconvened is the dropping of charges against former News of the World executive Alex Marunchak and private detective Jonathan Rees for hacking into computers between 2005 and 2007. The charges had to be dropped because they were brought later than the three year limit on computer hacking crimes. So, again because of a legal restriction, the substance of the charges will not be resolved.
There are other remarkable aspects of the relationship between Rees and the paper, which paid him up to £150,000 a year for his services. These included using his extensive contacts among corrupt police to buy information for the paper. He was jailed once for planting cocaine on the wife of a client in a divorce case. The day he was released from jail, the paper’s editor Andy Coulson immediately re-hired him. Rees was also charged in 2002 with murdering his former partner Daniel Morgan, who was killed in 1987 allegedly when he was threatening to reveal corruption among Rees and some police. Some of those police were initially in charge of the investigation. When charges were brought 15 years later, obviously many questions surrounded the evidence presented in court.
In 2002 the BBC’s Crimewatch program had presenter Jacqui Hames and her husband police officer David Cook appealing for information about the crime. An associate of Rees contacted News International editors who agreed to ‘sort Cook out’, and placed surveillance vans outside the couple’s house. Out of all the misdeeds revealed by Murdoch’s News staff in London, this – seeking to inhibit police investigation of a murder – is, in my view, one of the most revealing about the corporation’s misuse of power and its immorality. As of this week, Rees’s involvement in computer hacking for the company will not be legally punished.
The other major event of this week, one that has attracted much more attention, is the reinstatement of Rebekah Brooks as head of News UK. In July 2011, at the height of the scandal, she resigned as head of Murdoch’s UK operations with a severance payout of £10.8 million. In addition, she received full payment of her legal fees plus some ongoing support for office expenses. She remained a Murdoch favourite, sometimes holidaying with the family and for some months now being a consultant in the US.
Now that the British election is safely over, Murdoch has brought her back to her old job, with a rumoured salary of £3 million a year. When Murdoch appeared before a House of Commons committee about the scandal, he called it the most humble day of my life. As Margaret Simons aptly commented, perhaps the reappointment of Brooks is the most arrogant day of his life – although there are many more days competing for this title than for most humble. Murdoch appears to be taking the criminal not guilty verdict as a much more open-ended view that Brooks did nothing wrong.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant, who was one of the phone tapping victims, colourfully and courageously called the move ‘two fingers up to the British public’. He said that Brooks’s defence in her criminal trial was ‘that she was incompetent and had no idea what was going on and the end results was that company lost £300 million. It mystifies me that Rupert Murdoch would want to reappoint her’.
It is also though two fingers up to two other groups. One is Murdoch’s shareholders, who watch on helpless to stop this commercially perverse move, which shows yet again how feeble are the mechanisms of corporate governance to tame the octogenarian’s power, and must wonder how Brooks’s reinstatement will add to shareholder value.
The second group is more interesting. There is a ghost army of former Murdoch employees whose careers have been ruined by the scandals. The two leading company executives who oversaw the company during its misdeeds and then its defence, are now sitting pretty: James Murdoch has been promoted to head of Twenty First Century Fox and now Rebekah Brooks has come out of her lucrative retirement into a lucrative executive position.
Most of the others involved in the scandal are not doing so well. For example the former head of security for the company, Mark Hanna, who was found not guilty at the same trial in which Brooks was a defendant, is complaining that he is damaged goods and cannot since the end of the trial find suitable employment. Soon afterwards the company made him redundant with a payout of £45,000. He is now suggesting that he might participate in a project that would reveal the company’s ‘underhand’ activity which will ‘shock everybody’. Similarly many of the journalists charged are now unemployed, and there are reports of health and marriage problems. Indeed their plight might make good fodder for a tabloid exposé. Like Hanna, the one saleable commodity many of them have is to sell revelations of their previous nefarious activities.
No-one can guess whether this will happen, and if so their stories may give more salacious details but would not comprise a comprehensive and authoritative account.
Lord Leveson, your country needs you, again.
Rod Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of political Science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of ‘Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment’ (NewSouth 2014).