“I don’t do politics”: Leveson on the law, tuition fees and political neutrality

Sam Rhodes 20 May 2015

I suspect that I approached this interview with Sir Brian Leveson in the wrong way.

As the press officer for the Union ushered me into a room to meet the prominent lawyer, who led the high-profile and contentious Leveson Inquiry, my head was buzzing with questions. As a student journalist, the debate which that inquiry sparked fascinates me. The effectiveness of the press regulator IPSO, the appropriateness of a Royal Charter, freedoms of the press pitted against the right to privacy – these are all emotive topics.

They remain hugely controversial given the 2011 phone-hacking scandal, the recent failure of the regulator to discipline The Sun and Katie Hopkins for that cockroaches piece, and consistent public distrust of the media.

Methods to control the press, however, also divide opinion. The Index on Censorship condemned the government plans in light of the Leveson Report of November 2012 as harmful to freedom of speech. The balancing act between ethics, state intervention and freedom of the press strike at the heart of our democracy and public sphere.

As such, I was eager to hear the opinions of the man who, as he said to me, “devoted 17 months of [his] life” to this hot topic, as Chair of the Leveson Inquiry.

 I was disappointed. One thing is clear about Sir Brian Leveson: he is a lawyer through and through.

“Well done”, he said to me, after I opened with a question probing his opinions on current press regulation. “I have been asked that over the last two and a half years.” That put me in my place.

He stressed that he always gave the same answer: “I produced a report. The report speaks for itself.” Continuing, he said: “I was given, on a cross-party basis, a particular piece of work to do … It is then for government and Parliament to decide what to do about it.” Likewise, when asked about whether he thought the inquiry, which cost £5.4 million, was worthwhile, he was tight-lipped: “That’s for other people to say.”

“If you want to know what I think about future regulation of the press, read the report.”

This, I must admit, took the wind out of my sails. Leveson noticed, saying, “I’ve not done very well for you there have I?”

Appropriately, this neutrality he rigorously practiced was the recurring theme of his speaker event at the Union. Time and again, he stressed to the audience that judges “must retain political neutrality”. On the cuts to legal aid, the Human Rights Act, and any other legislation, he emphasised that the role of the law in a democracy is to “enact legislation from Parliament”. Law, he argued, did not and could not have the “loudspeaker of Health and Education” when affected by government policy.

“Our decisions as judges have to follow the law. That’s how democracy works.”

Yet, it is clear that Leveson is not some thoughtless drone – he does have positions. When I pushed him, asking whether he had an opinion on my questions, he repeatedly said “Of course I do!” During the speaker event, he cryptically commented: “I follow events with interest.” Legal decisions, he conceded, had a “political impact”. On legal aid, he admitted: “I am concerned about access to justice”, and outlined how he believed the profession should make efficiencies to try ensure it.  

Also, during the interview, I asked him about tuition fees, given his position as Chancellor of Liverpool John Moore University. Here, he did give some ground: “I’m very concerned about the extent to which life for students is made more difficult, more costly, and creates more of a burden upon them for the future.

“Leaving university in substantial debt is to my mind very serious problem”. Again, however, he declined to comment on specific policies and political positions.

Leveson was more emotive when discussing his reviewing of the case of one of the last men to be executed in Britain, James Hanratty. He unambiguously rejected the death penalty: “I am absolutely opposed to capital punishment and I always have been.”

This, then, poses an interesting conundrum. If the legal profession must remain politically neutral, yet as lawyers obviously have their own moral, ethical and political positions, what happens when these clash? An audience member picked up on this as well, and posed the question to Leveson.

He paused for a number of seconds before responding: “That is a hypothetical scenario, but it has been a subject of debate, specifically around the legal profession in Germany during the second world war.

“I don’t know what I would do. I think I might resign, and say I cannot do that job, but I really don’t know.”