The conference platform was surrounded by screens tinted a deep and easeful blue. At just after 1.30 pm, Lord Leveson ambled forth, sporting a white shirt, a grey suit and a slight stoop. He peered out at the assembled pack of journalists from beneath his curmudgeonly black eyebrows. Then he sat at his desk. Microphones at either end bowed towards him like praying mantises. He began to speak. His quiet voice and his dense, circuitous prose suggest that he’s used to being listened to in awed silence. So he was. Occasionally he slowed the pace and upped the volume suddenly. A court-room device, perhaps, to jog a dozy juror awake.
‘The press, operating freely,’ he intoned, ‘is one of the true safeguards of our democracy.’ As his speech unfolded it became clear he was offering caution and conciliation. He hadn’t come to hurl grenades or to slay reputations. Still less was he intent on setting one tribe off against another. He declared the police innocent of systematic corruption. He described the ‘everyday interactions’ between politicians and the media as being ‘in robust good health.’ As for the chumminess between press barons and prime ministers, he merely characterised this as an enduring problem. The closest he came to criticising lobbyists was to refer to advocacy that occurs ‘out of the public eye’.
He called for greater transparency and he urged the public be helped to ‘understand’ political lobbying better. After ten minutes he took some water. Only the tiniest sip, mind you. Even his refreshments were austere and circumspect in the extreme.
He knew full well that the most combustible element in his report was the suggestion that self-regulation be guaranteed by parliamentary statute. Here he gave his delivery an especially solemn emphasis.
‘This is not, and cannot fairly be recognised as, statutory regulation of the press.’
Drawing to close, he glanced up through his skinny-framed spectacles and read out a list of those he wished to thank. Robert Jay, QC, and his team of lawyers got top billing. The public witnesses were acknowledged last. This was only blunder in an otherwise faultless performance.
He summed up by linking his remarks to the historic bonds between the press, the people and the state. The Leveson Report, as he’d told us earlier, is the seventh attempt in 70 years to deal with the excesses of the media.
‘No one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth.’ This was it, then. Handling the press will be settled by Leveson or not at all. He urged politicians to move forward in a spirit of cross-party co-operation. And, with a final sepulchral flourish, he added:
‘This report can, and must, speak for itself,’ he said in his chilliest tones.
We get the message. No comment, no clarification, and no supplementary footnote will ever be forthcoming from the great jurist. Like the Queen, he will not be interviewed. And with that he ambled off stage, holding his grey hands loosely behind his back.
Those who speak body language tell us this gesture symbolises supreme authority.