Leveson’s ‘threat to quit’ over meddling Education Secretary’s claims the inquiry is having a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech
Extraordinary ultimatum from the man leading probe into media standards
Education Secretary Michael Gove’s speech to journalists warned of the dangers to our freedom of speech
Lord Justice Leveson phoned Cabinet Secretary and demanded that Gove should be gagged
Threatened to resign unless Cabinet Ministers were stopped from passing comments on his inquiry
By Simon Walters and Brendan Carlin
PUBLISHED: 22:40, 16 June 2012 | UPDATED: 14:54, 17 June 2012
The judge leading the probe into media behaviour threatened to quit after he was publicly criticised by a Cabinet Minister, senior Government sources claimed last night.
Lord Justice Leveson phoned Whitehall’s most senior mandarin and demanded that Education Secretary Michael Gove – who claimed the inquiry had created a ‘chilling atmosphere’ towards freedom of speech – should be gagged. In the angry call to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, the judge claimed that if Ministers were not silenced, his inquiry, set up to investigate phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, would be rendered worthless.
He also summoned Mr Gove to give evidence to the inquiry to explain himself. An alarmed Sir Jeremy informed David Cameron of the judge’s ultimatum.
Mr Justice Leveson, QC, left, threatened to quit the inquiry after his work was criticised by Education Secretary Michael Gove who said the inquiry had brought a ‘chilling atmosphere around freedom of expression’
Government insiders say they were convinced Leveson was prepared to resign in protest unless Ministers stopped passing comment on his inquiry.
‘Our clear impression was that he was spitting tacks with Gove and was ready to resign unless the Minister was told to shut up,’ said one source.
Other insiders insisted Leveson did not threaten to walk away from the inquiry, but they confirmed the phone call to Sir Jeremy – and that Leveson said Ministers such as Mr Gove should not speak out.
‘Leveson said that if this was going to continue with Cabinet Ministers offering opinions while the inquiry was in its early days, he would have to question whether the inquiry had any value, bearing in mind it was using public money,’ said the source. ‘He did not threaten to resign.’
A spokesman for the inquiry said: ‘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.’
The spokesman refused to make any further comment.
Downing Street, Mr Gove and the Cabinet Office, where Sir Jeremy is based, all refused to comment.
The extraordinary row erupted after Mr Gove gave a speech to political journalists at a House of Commons Press Gallery luncheon on February 21.
He argued that the Leveson Inquiry had created a ‘chilling atmosphere’ towards freedom of expression and any attempt to tighten regulation of newspapers could result in ‘a cure worse than the original disease’.
Mr Gove was concerned about groups with vested interests ‘fettering’ the press.
He conceded that illegal activity conducted by some sections of the media had to be ‘vigorously policed’ but said Ministers should not be panicked into over-reacting to the phone-hacking scandal.
He appeared to have riled Leveson with pointed comments accusing ‘the Establishment, the great and the good and judges’ of joining forces with celebrities who wanted to muzzle a free press.
Mr Gove said: ‘When an undoubted wrong has been done there’s a desire to find a judge, a civil servant, a representative of the great and good, inevitably a figure from the Establishment, to inquire into what went wrong and to make recommendations about what might be put right.
‘It’s a natural thing for politicians to do but sometimes there are dangers associated with it.’
He added that there was a danger of regulation being imposed by ‘judges, celebrities, and the Establishment . . . all of whom have an interest in taking over from the press as arbiters of what a free press should be.’
An enraged Leveson immediately instructed his officials to compile a full report of Mr Gove’s comments. And within 24 hours, he phoned Sir Jeremy to protest.
The Cabinet Secretary informed No 10 and Mr Gove. Cabinet sources say neither Mr Gove nor other Ministers were ordered to keep quiet about the Leveson Inquiry. However, few have spoken out since his indignant phone call.
But the bitter feud between Mr Gove and Leveson was evident when the Education Secretary, a former journalist at The Times, owned by Mr Murdoch, gave evidence at the inquiry on May 29.
A defiant Mr Gove repeated the arguments he made at the Commons Press Gallery, almost word for word, to the evident annoyance of Leveson.
The judge insisted new rules were needed to curb media excesses, while Mr Gove strongly defended Mr Murdoch and said journalists were ‘exercising a precious liberty’ when they wrote articles.
A clearly irritated Lord Justice Leveson snapped: ‘Mr Gove, I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don’t.’
He was ‘concerned’ by Mr Gove’s view that ‘unacceptable’ behaviour has ‘to be accepted because of the right of freedom of speech’.
But Mr Gove stuck to his guns, insisting attempts to stamp out wrongdoing could make things worse.
Here is the real lesson from this inquiry – all thoughts are now public property
by Michael Mansfield, QC
We’re definitely in this together’. These words were revealed to the Leveson Inquiry this week as part of a text message sent by Rebekah Brooks to David Cameron on the eve of his conference speech in October 2009.
Various meanings have been proposed, but one could not have been intended. It is that the digital age has transformed not just the medium but also the message and without due care we will all end up ‘in it together’.
Thoughts and identity become public property. For some, there is empowerment, for others humiliation. For some, means of change, for others the opportunity for exploitation.
In 1968, Andy Warhol observed: ‘In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ Note, not just the obvious people, but ‘everyone’.
The advent of social networking, texting, tweeting, YouTube, Facebook, Myspace, blogs and e-petitions has created an information highway beyond measure, along which millions of individuals are transported every second. All brought to you in handy pocket-sized devices.
We are on the verge of living in a ‘screen culture’, a transposition of the ‘private’ into the ‘public’. A byproduct of this invasion is unverifiable material. Critical thinking is in danger of being swamped.
This has to be addressed by education to circumvent misunderstandings. Jurors in criminal trials are warned not to surf the net.
It would incur a significant risk of untested material influencing the verdict.
The point we’ve reached requires precaution by everyone. Privacy is a treasured necessity for the security and development of the individual.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘No one should be subject to arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy.’ This has been consistently reinforced by judicial pronouncements.
Yet what has happened, surreptitiously and rapidly, is a widespread voluntary, unrecognised surrender.
In the rush to be in constant touch with every event and feeling, to be a global villager, we have sacrificed who we are to scrutiny. The price is details of your identity and consumer preferences.
To get a bus pass, a store card or any product online, they want your birthmarks. The small print offers you to other organisations unless you spot the tiny opt-out box.
At the same time as corporations are assembling dossiers of personal information, the State is proposing greater powers of intrusion.
Last week, the Home Secretary Theresa May and Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe announced the need to access more details of phone calls, texts and emails.
More than 95 per cent of major crime investigations involve covert techniques.
None of this sits comfortably with the Coalition vow after the last Election ‘to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under Labour’.
The mantra of ‘national security’ trips easily off the tongue of authorities whose record for responsible governance is being seriously questioned at the Leveson Inquiry.
The close links between senior Government figures, senior Met officers and the Murdoch machine hardly restores confidence in a system of checks and balances. More appropriate might be the concepts of manipulation and exploitation.
There is another, converse side to this story. The power of the new technology cannot be contained and cannot be controlled. It is a people’s revolution of astonishing force.
The ongoing Arab Spring, a struggle against oppression and censorship, has been facilitated by the use of unofficial blogs, tweets and film.
On our own streets, the unlawful activities of police can be captured on mobile phones which give the lie to the official version of events.
Unlawful corporate activities can also be exposed. It is a form of accountability and democratisation which has been sorely lacking.
There is a clear tension between these forces. A resolution can only be entertained if we redefine the idea of ‘privacy’. It is up to the individual to police his or her identity.
It is no coincidence that we are in the middle of an economic and environmental meltdown derived from a shadow economy in which the truth was hidden until collapse was unavoidable.
It is a wake-up call of astronomic proportions.
The moral high ground has to be reclaimed by the pursuit of principle and transparency. New forms of governance must be formulated that enshrine accountability.
I doubt this can be delivered through the ballot box, but it might through the mobile phone.