By: John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
27 June 2012. Testimony in “Module 3” of the Leveson Inquiry is due to end this week.
In July the Inquiry will move on from its Module 3 focus on the relationship between the press and politicians. The focus of Module 4 will be how to fix the mess.
Module 3 surfaced some of the most disturbing revelations yet. But, inevitably, leaving behind the relationship of the press and politicians also leaves loose ends.
Some things seem clear
It seems clear News Corp exerted significant influence, Rupert Murdoch’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Murdoch testified he never asked any Prime Minister for anything. Former Prime Minister John Major decisively and credibly contradicted Murdoch.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair backed Murdoch’s claim. But Blair’s own spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, appeared to contradict Blair’s version of events. In an entry written long before anyone knew it would reflect on the testimony under oath of his former boss, Campbell’s diaries record that Murdoch pressured Blair to commit UK forces to the Iraq War without delay.
Business Secretary Vince Cable testified he had warned that News Corp had threatened to turn its newspapers loose on the Liberal Democrats if Cable ruled the wrong way on the bSkyb takeover bid. Norman Lamb confirmed Cable’s account, giving the details of the threat during his testimony 27 June. During testimony Lamb also made clear the prospect filled their Party’s leader with dread.
Some loose ends remain
The Leveson Inquiry concerns press standards, not Minister Misconduct. Leveson will not adjudicate the guilt, innocence, culpability, or propriety of the conduct in office of either Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt or Prime Minister David Cameron. That is not Leveson’s charge.
It is difficult to see how the inquiry could pin down the extent of press influence on politicians without also pinning down the actual impact of News Corp’s lobbying efforts on Ministers’ conduct.
Observers divide between two alternative narratives.
Alternative 1: Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Prime Minister David Cameron remained impartial in judgement if deferentially “diplomatic.” They followed the process.
Alternative 2: the process Hunt followed was cover for a plan to approve the bid. Ministers used process and “plausible deniability” to cover their tracks. No one seriously argues for an express quid pro quo.
But with the end to Module 3 testimony, Leveson will not cross-examine either the recently knighted internal counsel or the senior bureaucrats who allegedly monitored and approved the handling of the matter by Secretary Hunt and the Prime Minister. Leveson will not confirm what Hunt and the Prime Minister did or did not disclose to counsel and bureaucrats, or when in relation to the formation of their opinions. This possibly enlightening testimony will remain untaken.
Similarly, various sources report News Corp issued four Senior Executives iPhones in 2009, the records for which have not been disclosed to Leveson.
News Corp initially denied the reports, then four days later revealed it was examining the records for evidence pertinent to phone hacking. Counsel indicated that thus far the records for one phone contained nothing new. He called the search “completely pointless.”
But the question remains, what would these records disclose. Would they disclose anything material not previously dislosed to Leveson concerning any discussions between News Corp and politicians over the bSkyb bid?
Module 3 closes without Leveson having received or examined the iPhone records or cross examined witnesses concerning the records’ content.
It is difficult to see how Leveson could determine the extent to which the press influenced politicians without pinning down these loose ends. On the other hand, it is just as difficult to see how Leveson could pin down these loose ends without at least impliedly determining (a) Minister(s) had been improperly influenced.
That determination would clearly exceed Leveson’s charge.
But just as clearly, it needs to be somebody’s charge. The British government does not deserve - nor should it retain - the confidence of the British electorate while the very serious allegations of Minister misconduct surfaced by Leveson remain unresolved and outside the bounds of independent scrutiny. The unfinished business should be somebody’s business to resolve.