After a summer spent reading himself into the phone-hacking scandal, Sir Brian Leveson must now be realising the magnitude of the task he has taken on. The senior judge, who sits in the Court of Appeal as Lord Justice Leveson, is well aware that coming up with the right answers is less of a challenge than keeping his public inquiry into the scandal within manageable bounds.
As he told reporters on July 28, "It is critical that we concentrate on the central and most important issues." The inquiry team and its witnesses would have to "exercise very considerable discipline and, where appropriate, restraint".
Their terms of reference, extended before they had even started work, fall into two sections. Part One requires Leveson and his panel of assessors to inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press and to recommend a more effective regulatory regime. Part Two involves an inquiry into misbehaviour by the press and police. Their initial report is meant to be delivered within 12 months — which means, in reality, by October next year. There is no point in trying to rush it out at the end of July, when the nation will be obsessed by the Olympics, and it would be right to wait until Parliament returns after the autumn party conference season.
The government's thinking seems to be that Leveson's initial report should cover only Part One of his terms of reference, allowing him to defer consideration of unlawful conduct within News International until criminal proceedings have been completed. And Leveson rightly says he is determined not to prejudice any police investigation or potential prosecution.
But it's not that simple. The conduct of national newspapers is specifically mentioned in the terms of reference for Part One. And Leveson recognised that his initial report would have to focus on the extent of unlawful or inappropriate behaviour by papers — even though he would stop short of examining "who did what to whom". Indeed, he noted that "many journalists" had devoted "many years of attention" to the "criminal, unethical and utterly inappropriate behaviour of small sections of the press". He hoped they would send him examples. I'm not so sure about the "many" but certainly the Guardian has put considerable effort into investigating improper behaviour by the News of the World. It is equally true that one of the Guardian's leading reporters was not above using "questionable methods" himself — though David Leigh, now the paper's investigations executive editor, argued nearly five years ago that "deceptions, lies and stings should only be used as a last resort, and only when it is clearly in the public interest".