Leveson denies 'hidden agenda' to stifle press freedom

LORD LEVESON this morning appeared to confirm reports that he is "losing it" over newspaper reports that he threatened to resign after Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, warned that his inquiry was having a "chilling" effect on press freedom.

Leveson today called a special hearing of his judicial inquiry into media ethics to deny the implication by Gove that he had a 'hidden agenda' to gag the press.

Leveson also summoned to his court in the Strand Simon Walters, the political editor of the Mail and Sunday, the author of an exclusive report saying that Lord Justice Leveson was so furious with Gove that he had threatened to resign.

In a 20-minute statement at the start of the new hearing this morning Leveson confirmed that he HAD contacted the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to check whether Gove was representing government policy when he claimed in a speech to the Commons press gallery hacks earlier this year that his inquiry was creating a "chilling atmosphere" towards freedom of expression.

Leveson denied he had tried to "gag" the Education Secretary. He neither confirmed nor denied that he had threatened to quit. But he did confirm he had made the call to the Cabinet Secretary, in February following Gove's speech, to question whether David Cameron still supported the judicial inquiry he had established in July last year in response to the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

During PMQs in February, Cameron said Gove had made "an important point" in his speech, adding: "Even as this inquiry goes on, we want to have a vibrant press that feels it can call the powerful to account, and we do not want to see it chilled."

Today, Leveson said: "It seemed to me at the time that … the PM's response was open to the interpretation that he was indeed agreeing with Mr Gove's views … Of greater concern to me was the question whether what he said had become the government's position [on] not just the effects of the inquiry, intended or otherwise, but also [whether] there was a danger that I had an interest in taking over as arbiter of what a free press should be."

Leveson added that he thought it "necessary and appropriate" to make the call to Sir Jeremy. "I received the assurance that no fixed view had been formed," he said.

"I was concerned about the perception that inquiry was being undermined while it was taking place," Leveson added.

Leveson was responding for the first time publicly to Simon Walters's story published on 17 June and headlined 'Leveson's threat to quit'.

By dragging Walters into his court to explain himself, Leveson raised suspicions that he is doing exactly what he is denying - that he is trying to put a stopper on press freedom.

Gove gave a robust defence of press freedom at the Leveson inquiry when he appeared in the dock, and his views were backed up by George Osborne. David Cameron was more cautious, but there is clearly going to be a split in the Tory ranks if Leveson proposes a tough new statutory regime.

Gove, a former Times journalist married to a Times commentator, wants the media to remain self-regulating but under a beefed-up independent regulatory body. Others including Sir John Major appear to support a statutory body, backed by legislation.

Lord Leveson's behaviour today does not bode well for his final report. · 

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