The Conversation

One of the key moments of the 2011 Leveson Inquiry into press standards came when the Daily Mail’s then-editor, Paul Dacre, took to the witness box to accuse Hugh Grant of pursuing “mendacious smears driven by a hatred of the media”. Dacre was responding to Grant’s allegation that a 2007 Mail on Sunday story could only have been obtained by hacking his voicemails.

The Mail has always vehemently denied any involvement with phone hacking or any other unlawful activities. So it came as a shock when, two weeks ago, a high-profile group including Prince Harry, Elton John, Liz Hurley and Baroness Doreen Lawrence announced that they were launching a legal action against the Mail’s publisher, Associated Newspapers.

Their claims of unlawful activity by the papers go well beyond phone hacking to the alleged hiring of private investigators to bug cars and homes. They also include allegations of the accessing of bank accounts and other financial transactions through illicit means, and the payment of police officials, with corrupt links to private investigators, for inside information.

Without doubt, the most eye-catching name among the claimants is that of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. It was the Mail, at Dacre’s behest, which first splashed the names of Stephen’s alleged killers on its front page. As Guardian commentator Jane Martinson reminded us, it is just five years since Baroness Lawrence sat next to Dacre at a banquet to celebrate his 25 years as Mail editor.

These allegations have been vehemently denied by the publisher. In a statement which branded the claims as “unsubstantiated and defamatory”, Associated Newspapers said: “We utterly and unambiguously refute these preposterous smears.”

The legal process will now run its course. Within the next few weeks, these claimants will serve their “particulars of claim”, followed by the publisher’s defence. At this point, there will be more disclosures about the allegations (and the claimants’ evidence) as well as the Mail’s response. In the meantime, Dacre’s long-expected peerage has reportedly been delayed.

However these cases develop, this new litigation serves as a reminder that the Leveson Inquiry is unfinished business. While the inquiry was prompted by revelations in July 2011 about News of the World journalists hacking the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, it was set up with an explicit two-part remit. Part one, looking generally at the culture and practices of the press, ended with the Leveson Report in November 2012, and recommendations for a new framework of self-regulation.

But because police investigations into possible criminal behaviour were ongoing (and subsequently resulted in several trials), the first part could not address the details of precisely who authorised, committed or was a party to unlawful activity, nor to what extent any corruption extended to the police. The inquiry’s chair, Sir Brian Leveson, acknowledged that important lines of questioning were not pursued in the full expectation that they would be covered in part two, which had been explicitly promised by the then-prime minister, David Cameron.

Unfinished business

In the intervening ten years, Mirror Group has admitted that senior editors and executives “actively turned a blind eye” to phone hacking on its newspapers, and have spent several hundred million pounds in settling claims. While Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN) – publisher of the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World – has refused to make any such admission in relation to the Sun, it too continues to pay out vast sums in settlements and legal fees.

In December 2021, the actress Sienna Miller called her settlement from NGN “tantamount to an admission of liability on the part of the Sun”. Further phone hacking claims against the newspaper were announced just last week.

These claims may be historic, but those in senior editorial positions at the time remain influential in the industry. And yet nobody has been held accountable for extensive wrongdoing which – in the words of the Leveson report – “wreaked havoc in the lives of ordinary people”. Against such a murky backdrop of settlements, allegations and continuing claims of unlawful behaviour, any other industry would be facing a clamour for truth and accountability.

Not this time. On the contrary, virtually every UK newspaper has used its editorial columns to reject the case for part two, dismissing it as backward-looking and a irrelevant. In March 2018, the then-culture secretary, Matt Hancock, responded to ferocious press lobbying by confirming that Leveson part two would indeed be shelved.

But these new claims suggest that the second part of Leveson is still relevant. It was designed to examine – once relevant criminal trials had finished – the relationships between journalists and the police, as well as between publishers and politicians and relevant regulatory bodies (such as the failed Press Complaints Commission) over the decade before the phone hacking scandal broke.

It was also supposed to investigate failures of corporate governance at newspaper groups which seemingly allowed misbehaviour to become routine.

Leveson followed a similar pattern to the Calcutt reports of 1990 and 1993 which produced an equally scathing account of shocking press behaviour in the 1980s. Calcutt’s recommendations were also ignored after intense press lobbying, and the phone-hacking scandal was arguably a direct result of that political cowardice. Leveson part two could put an end to the cycle of press misbehaviour followed by weak and ineffectual political responses.

Steven Barnett does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.