By John Helmer, Moscow
There are 7,018 pages in the four-volume paper print of Lord Leveson’s report on the ethics and practices of the British press. But just three references to Russia. One of them is a reflection on press freedom in primitive Russia and Ethiopia, compared with civilized UK by Alexander Lebedev, owner of the London dailies, The Evening Standard and The Independent (both currently for sale).
The report is modestly titled with an indefinite article: “An Enquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, Report.” The byline belongs to Sir Brian Leveson (image left), a specialist criminal lawyer, then an appellate court judge. According to one of Lebedev’s papers, Leveson is in the running for promotion to the job of Lord Chief Justice, as the principal position in the British judiciary is called. That’s to say, he was in the running before his report was composed and despatched to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Leveson’s executive summary can be read here; the four volumes here.
There are also 748 references to Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and other family members and in-laws, whose alleged telephone hacking, bribery of policemen, blackmail threats, influence trafficking, lobbying of politicians, and other practices led to the appointment of the enquiry in the first place.
Russia is the only jurisdiction in the world which, having investigated Murdoch for corruption in connection with his operation of News Outdoor Russia and his attempted sale of the asset, got rid of him. Leveson appears not to have known of its relevance, nor investigated the details.
Of the three references to Russia in his report, two are inconsequential. One is a passing note about the US Embassy cable, which was published in Wikileaks and given prominence in the Anglo-American press, calling Russia “a virtual Mafia state”. The second reference comes from Cameron’s witness appearance before Leveson, when the prime minister described a private jet trip to meet Murdoch “on the way back from a visit to Georgia (which had recently been invaded by Russia).” Murdoch’s personal animus towards Russia – enhanced by the Latvian nationality of his last but one wife — is as well-known as Cameron’s one-sided endorsement of Georgia’s invasion of Ossetia, which triggered the war of August 2008.
The third reference comes with Leveson’s endorsement of Alexander Lebedev as a KGB veteran and a philosopher. “Lebedev offered an interesting insight, bearing in mind the perspective of his Russian background, into the constitutional importance of a free press: ‘Well, I just think that – okay. Going back to the question of politicians meeting proprietors, I think we are in danger of building a society where every institution, every element of democracy becomes too feeble. So politicians become too feeble, police becomes too feeble, the country itself becomes too feeble. If the press also becomes feeble, then what we get is what I would call a tyranny of consensus, and everyone is afraid or thinks twice or has to check twice before a step they make, a comment they make, and I think one of the extraordinary things about this country is a very robust and diverse press, and I think that has to be protected. Without, of course – those who have created – who have committed crimes, sorry, should be punished and punished according to the law. But I think the robustness of the press in this country should be protected because otherwise, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been recently going on trips to countries where there is no freedom of the press. I’ve just come back from Ethiopia and there are journalists there that have been charged with terrorism, with genocide. Some might be put to death. Countries like that, when you visit them and you see what the lack of the freedom of the press has on the effects on the government and the state, and also, as far as I’m concerned, I come from – I was born in the Soviet Union, I come from Russia, and I can see the effects of not having a free press is having on Russia.’ ” (Volume 1, sect.2:26.)
The terms of reference to which Leveson worked, announced by the Prime Minister in July 2011, indicate that Leveson was authorized to do more than inquire. He was to judge. “The second part of the inquiry,” Cameron told the House of Commons on July 13, 2011, “will examine the extent of unlawful or improper conduct at the News of the World and other newspapers, and the way in which management failures may have allowed it to happen…We have agreed that the inquiry should consider not just the relationship between the press, police and politicians, but their individual conduct too. We have also made it clear that the inquiry should look not just at the press, but at other media organisations, including broadcasters and social media if there is any evidence that they have been involved in criminal activities.”
Thus, one of the UK’s leading judges was engaged to spend a large amount of public money (almost £4 million as of June 30, 2012), hear months of testimony, and compile his report. But has the Lord Justice done the one thing he was supposed to do – judge? And what does his performance reveal of the difference between the Russian and British way of doing things in the press, and in the courts?
Leveson concedes the obvious at the start — “the extraordinary influence that Rupert Murdoch has exercised over the development of the press in Britain, since he purchased NoTW [News of the World] newspaper in 1969” (1-s1.1). He also judges Murdoch’s newspaper style. “Mr Murdoch introduced a style and understanding of journalism that he had developed at the Adelaide [Australia] News. In an otherwise staid newspaper market, the re-launched The Sun and NoTW were irreverent and anti-establishment.” (1-s2.22). There is also reticence in the judicial finding that “Mr Murdoch takes an active interest in the editorial direction of the NGN titles, though the position in relation to The Sun and NoTW was far from identical” (1-s2.49).
Leveson has no difficulty passing judgement on ministers in the current Cameron government. Vince Cable, the business minister, for example: “Despite strong attempts to lobby him behind the scenes, Dr Cable acted with scrupulous care and impartiality until he was interviewed by two journalists posing as his constituents in early December 2010. He was fully entitled to hold strong views about the press in general and News International in particular, but his quasi-judicial role in relation to the bid meant that he had to put them to one side. Unfortunately, his unguarded remarks to these journalists about Rupert Murdoch and News International entered the public domain, thus creating an appearance of bias, and the Prime Minister was forced to transfer responsibility for the handling of the bid elsewhere” (Executive Summary, s123).
Then there is the judgement against Jeremy Hunt, the media minister: “I have concluded that there is no credible evidence of actual bias on the part of Mr Hunt. However, the voluminous exchanges between Mr Michel and Mr Smith, in the circumstances, give rise to a perception of bias. The fact that they were conducted informally, and off the departmental record, are an additional cause for concern” (Executive Summary, s128).
But what judgements does Leveson reach on the evidence presented on the Murdochs?
Volume 1 of the report deals with telephone tapping, hacking, and bribery. Regarding James Murdoch, Leveson rules: “The extent of James Murdoch’s knowledge of the allegations is not clear.” For a judge quite capable of precise forensic analysis to assist his judgement, it is odd that Leveson lets Murdoch off the hook on this analysis of what Murdoch’s brain was capable of in 120 seconds: “James Murdoch explained in evidence that he did not read all the email chain, and did not read the specific allegation made by Mr Taylor because he received the email on a Saturday when he was with his family. He said that since he was due to meet Mr Myler to discuss the issue on the following Tuesday he did not feel he needed to read beyond the request for a meeting. James Murdoch replied to the email within two minutes of receiving it. The speed and content of his reply appear to support his claim not to have focused on the key allegation” (1-s7.41).
The Murdoch defence to the allegations against them is that criminal acts had been committed, but too far down the chain of command for them to know; and that subsequently up the chain of command there had been a cover-up. That, according to Rupert and James Murdoch, had turned the two of them from perpetrators into victims. Here is Leveson on the central issue for judgement: “Given the significance of the issue, it is necessary also to deal with the extent to which Rupert Murdoch had knowledge of the relevant facts. Rupert Murdoch said in evidence that he knew nothing of the settlement of the claim brought by Mr Taylor when it happened in 2008. He said that he first learned of it in 2009 and was very surprised by the size of the settlement. He recalled discussing with James Murdoch why the settlement was so high, but denied that there was any discussion about the fact that Mr Taylor had evidence of further illegality at NoTW or that NGN had had to settle at that level to buy the silence of Mr Taylor. He said that James Murdoch’s explanation for the value of the settlement was that, though high, it was less than the anticipated cost of a full trial” (1-s7.45).
“Rupert Murdoch claimed that senior management at NI: ‘…were, all misinformed and shielded from anything that was going on there… there’s no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone took charge of a cover-up which we were victim to’ “(1-s7.46). “He went on to say that the culture of cover-up emanated from: ‘one or two very strong characters ………or the person I’m thinking of…..was a clever lawyer and forbade people to go and report to Mrs Brooks or to James’” (1-s7.47).
Were the Murdochs telling the truth or lying? The judge flubs.
“I must make it clear that if James Murdoch was unaware of the allegations, his lack of knowledge is, at least in part, only as a result of chance, rather than as the consequence of a sustained campaign by Mr Myler or Mr Crone (if there was one) deliberately to keep him in the dark. The fact is that had he read, in detail, the entirety of the email that he received on 7 June 2008, there was sufficient to put him onto a line of enquiry which could have led to an investigation of the entire issue. It also depends on precisely what he was told on 10 June 2008” (1-s7.51).
“It is sufficient to say that if James Murdoch had been the victim of a cover-up, or an attempt to minimise the gravity of the position, then the accountability and governance systems at NI would have to be considered to have broken down in an extremely serious respect. If James Murdoch was not the victim of an internal cover up then the same criticism can be made of him as of Mr Myler or Mr Crone in respect of the failure to take appropriate action to deal with allegations of widespread criminality within the organisation” (1-s7.52).
“A similar analysis stands in respect of News Corporation. Although there is no evidence from which I could safely infer that Rupert Murdoch was aware of a wider problem, it does not appear that he followed up (or arranged for his son to follow up) on the brief that he believed had been given to Mr Myler to ‘find out what the hell was going on’ [Rupert Murdoch quote], leaving the matter solely in the hands of Mr Hinton. If News Corporation management, and in particular Rupert Murdoch, were aware of the allegations, it is obvious that action should have been taken to investigate them. If News Corporation were not aware of the allegations which, as Rupert Murdoch has said, have cost the corporation many hundreds of millions of pounds, then there would appear to have been a significant failure in corporate governance” (1-s7.50). That subjunctive has cost £4 million in taxpayer’s money.
Leveson wants to appear strenuous in the performance of his duty, but in the end he fails to discharge it. “I have given careful consideration as to whether I should go further, and conclude that Mr Crone’s version of events as to what occurred on 10 June 2008 should be preferred to that of James Murdoch. There are aspects of the account of Mr Murdoch that cause me some concern: in particular, it is surprising if the gist of Mr Silverleaf’s opinion was not communicated to him in circumstances where the potential reputational damage to the company, of which he was CEO, was likely to be great if an early settlement of the claim brought by Mr Taylor were not
Here is the buck passing into oblivion: “Whatever the truth [sic], there was serious failure of governance within the NoTW. Given the criminal investigation and what are now the impending prosecutions, it is simply not possible to go further at this stage. In any event, what can be said is that there was a failure on the part of the management at the NoTW” (1-s12.11).
In volume 2, Leveson makes 52 references to the Murdochs, and issues one ruling, another contorted subjunctive: “Mr Murdoch would no doubt not wish to countenance the deployment of tactics tantamount to blackmail” (2-s4:53).
Volume 3 of the report investigates the Murdochs’ political operations and the extent to which they used their media power to threaten politicians with support or opposition in print at election time in return for policies promoted by the Murdochs, including commercial favours and payoffs to their companies and pockets. This section of the report runs to 1,476 pages with 542 references to Murdoch.
Sir John Major, the prime minister in 1997, is explicit. “There was a significant exchange between Mr Murdoch and Sir John shortly before the election. Sir John invited Mr Murdoch and his wife to dinner because he had been urged by party officials to “woo” newspaper proprietors. Sir John said this about the occasion: ‘…In the run-up to the 1997 election, in my third and last meeting with him on 2 February 1997, he made it clear that he disliked my European policies which he wished me to change. If not, his papers could not and would not support the Conservative Government. So far as I recall, he made no mention of editorial independence but referred to all his papers as “we”. Both Mr Murdoch and I kept our word. I made no change in policy, and Mr Murdoch’s titles did indeed oppose the Conservative Party…’” (3-s.2.21).
In his witness testimony former prime minister Tony Blair was more coy – so is Leveson.
In March 1998, according to the report evidence, Murdoch requested Blair to ask the Italian Prime Minister at the time, Romano Prodi, to allow Murdoch to take over the Italian Mediaset television group. “Whether Mr Blair would have telephoned Mr Prodi to intervene on Mr Murdoch’s behalf had the latter not telephoned him first on another matter is unclear. In any event, taking full account of the fact that Mr Murdoch was seeking very limited benefit from the intervention, what may be more important is what can be inferred from the fact that Mr Murdoch was able to ask the Prime Minister to make the enquiry in the first place” (3-s.3:21).
Five years later, in a much better known and more momentous episode in March 2003, Blair asked Murdoch for support of Blair’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Leveson reaches for camouflage. “Although Mr Blair did not have a clear recollection of the precise content of these calls (and nor did Mr Murdoch when asked about them), it is interesting that he made time to discuss these issues with a newspaper proprietor speaking from the USA. It is also interesting that Mr Murdoch’s newspapers worldwide all supported the war” (3-s.3.23).
The relationship between Murdoch and British politicians, the judge finally judges, is too close. But that isn’t because Leveson has ruled on the evidence of corruption in the relationship. All Leveson has found is a problem of “perception”.
“Mr Cameron frankly and, in my view, properly accepts that politicians have got too close to the media. In his words: ‘Yes. I mean, that’s part of my evidence, really, is to say I think this relationship has been going wrong for, you know – it’s never been perfect. There have always been problems and you can point to examples of Churchill putting Beaverbrook as a minister. There have been issues for years.But I think in the last 20 years, I think the relationship has not been right. I think it has been too close, as I explain in my evidence, and I think we need to try and get it on a better footing.’ The problem is public perception. This section of the Report has dealt with too many issues where the public, not knowing any more than it has (or, I might say, than what it reads in the newspapers), has been entitled to worry about the way things have been done and what has been going on. A way of conducting relationships with the media which leads to a situation in which a public Inquiry is needed to take an objective, not to say forensic, look at the matter in order to reassure the public cannot be considered as satisfactory or itself in the public interest.” (3-s4.8).
Leveson’s forensics do more to establish whether Rupert Murdoch went in to see the prime minister through the front door of 10 Downing Street, or through the back door. He refuses to rule on the truthfulness of the conflicting evidence of what was said inside. He also omits to investigate whether British readers of the papers are in fact as influenced by the editorials and media partisanship as Murdoch and the politicians he favours appear to think.
Russian readers are more knowing. For generations, before the communist revolution, during the Soviet period, and since 1991, they believe the media are propaganda tools – not to be believed as sources of either truth or sense. Leveson’s report illustrates the likelihood that the British are more gullible; and that the Murdochs use every trick in the book, along with money and the promise of making more out of advertising and celebrity, to keep them that way. When Lebedev compared Russia and Ethiopia unfavourably to the UK, he omitted to say that he has investigated the credulousness of readers of Moscow and Ethiopia. Lebedev makes certain his own conclusions on the matter can’t be challenged because he refuses to expose himself, his son Evgeny, or their common business practices to independent questioning.
And so to Leveson’s finale, and if Lebedev is right, the huzzah for British democracy.
“It has been suggested that it is important that I resolve this conflict of evidence and express my view as to where the truth lies. I decline to do so for two very different reasons. The first is very important in the context of the nature of the Inquiry and the manner in which it has had to be approached both as a matter of statute but also, as I have indicated, practicality. It is possible to postulate circumstances in which the question of whether this telephone call took place was central to the resolution of civil litigation between the parties. In that event, considerable investigation would have focussed around the precise date and time of the alleged telephone call; questions would have been addressed to Mr Murdoch as to how he said that the call had been connected; phone records and other documents sought on discovery. Mr Murdoch would have been cross-examined at length by counsel for Mr Brown and vice versa. The question who to believe would have been capable of decision within a far fuller factual matrix. To do so, in particular, without permitting cross-examination seems to me to be unfair to both men” (1-s3.10).
“I recognise that judges are sometimes required to make difficult factual decisions with very little more than the information available and, if it was critical to do so, I would have had to do the best that I could. That leads me to the second reason. In short, it is neither critical nor, indeed, necessary to decide where the truth of this conversation lies: save in the limited respect of the credibility of Mr Murdoch, it is not relevant to the Terms of Reference at all…”
“In part, I have gone into the detail of this particular factual conflict because of the interest and concern that has been expressed about it. Of greater importance as a reason for doing so has been to explain the limitations of the forensic exercise that it has been possible to undertake while addressing the very wide Terms of Reference within the broad timeframe within which I have been asked to report. This Report will not provide all the answers to all the questions that could possibly arise out of the uncountable number of issues that have been raised in evidence. Those who are expecting it to do so will be disappointed” (1-s.3.12).
This pleading in mitigation by the judge comes down to a single word. Disappointment isn’t the word for it.