I admit it, I’m an addict. I’m mainlining on reality TV in a way that is scary. I always told myself I could fight it. What a fool I’ve been! Now I am waking up with the schedule in my head, cancelling convivial lunches, getting the shakes if I try to withdraw.
Lord Justice Leveson is ruining my life. I may consult a lawyer.
It’s got the format of Judge Judy, the characters of le Carre, the red herrings of Agatha Christie and the plots of Robert Harris. Off-camera, there’s a sword of Damocles suspended by a single hair and every day, as they deliver another 30,000-odd words, the witnesses invite it to skewer their well-coiffeured skulls or greasy pates.
With agonising slowness, revelations are being extracted which are then inserted into the big picture like pixels on newsprint.
For us hacks and ranters, and no doubt many civilians, it’s a slow-burning blockbuster.
There’s Robert Jay, QC, playing Robin to Lord Leveson’s beetle-browed Batman, and the beautiful Carine Patry Hoskins as a wide-eyed Girl Wonder.
On Monday the inquiry into press standards reached Chapter 5: News International Week.
I give the following as one exquisite moment of Htchcockian suspense.
Jay, who never misses a dot or comma, was in the middle of a lawyerly duel with Tom Crone, former legal manager at News International.
He inquired about a reply Crone had given to Adam Price, MP, at a select committee.
Jay: ‘If I were to ask you the same question as Mr Price asked you, would you give me the same answer?’
That is a very pointed question!
Crone requested the transcript. For two minutes he pored over it. Everyone waited. As we got ready for the answer, the judge looked at the clock and said: ‘It’s time for a short break...’
If it were TV, you’d call this a cliffhanger. It would be ‘Next week: see what happens!’
So people popped to the loo, stretched and yawned, stood up and turned around, shuffled their trousers and underwear, had a natter, took a breather. Five minutes passed.
Then the judge reappeared and the inquiry resumed.
Crone jumped straight back into his seat, leaned forward and peered over his spectacles. Without prompting he said three words to Jay: ‘Yes, I would.’
Yes, he’d give the same answer. There was a palpable sense of relief or disappointment, depending on your view.
I don’t have space here to explain all the complexities. The evidence is long and detailed.
In another time and place, Murdoch’s company might have felt honoured to have four days of non-stop coverage devoted exclusively to it. But this was different.
News International Week - the announcement acted like a movie trailer, creating such a buzz that various hacks who normally shunned daylight rushed down to the Royal Courts of Justice to hang out like stage door Johnnies.
They were initially disappointed in that the first star was himself ‘redacted’, at least visually.
Therefore I cannot say whether Mazheer Mahmood wore a lounge suit, his Fake Sheikh gear or dressed as a High Court judge in hope of creating his usual mayhem. I do not know. All we got was his voice, which had the well-rounded vowels of someone used to impersonating Eton-educated desert billionaires..
When he answered questions incompletely, we heard a toughness enter Lord Leveson’s otherwise amiable tone.
Maz insisted he had carried out his News of the World investigations as a public duty and denied that he entrapped people by offering ‘golden carrots’.
He said: ‘We risk our lives on a daily basis. I live under death threats. I’m proud to have exposed paedophiles, drug dealers, drug runners and the like.’
But he also added: ‘I’m a journalist. We publish stories, we sell newspapers. I’m not a police officer, I’m not a social worker.’
Leveson asked him if a story would be justified simply because an MP was having an affair.
Maz: ‘Yes, that’s right. We vote for these people.’
What if it was an actor or author?
Maz: ‘No, no, no. MPs hold public office, slightly different for an actor - except if he’s in Hello and cashing in on his family life - a degree of hypocrisy.’
As he left the witness box, the press was allowed to return and the camera switched back on. We saw his place being taken by Neville Thurlbeck, former NotW chief reporter. Because he had been arrested in Operation Weeting, he was not asked about phone hacking.
Otherwise his evidence was wide-ranging.
Kiss and tell story fees: ‘There were six figure sums but rarely. Average for a front page splash was £15-20,000.
Authenticity: ‘There was always a myth that we made it all up, and that still prevails. We didn’t. We went to enormous length to satisfy our lawyers it was demonstrably correct - documentary evidence, photographic evidence...a birthday card, gift, phone call. For every kiss and tell that made it, there were were six, ten, that fell by the wayside, even if we believed the story.’
Current situation: ‘The kiss and tell story is now largely dead.’
Privacy: ‘Recently I exposed a politician for having an affair. It made a big story. We thought long and hard about whether we should run it. The man had used his family and happy marriage in his election literature, so we felt justified.’
David Beckham: How much had they paid Rebecca Loos? Thurlbeck paused, saying he was trying to think of reasons why he should not reveal this. Leveson told him to answer.
Thurlbeck: ‘A six figure sum, the most I’ve ever paid.’
Jay: ‘Not quite a seven figure.’
That was taken to mean it was nearly a million.
What was the justification?
Thurlbeck: ‘The Beckham’s had been using their marriage to endorse products, presenting themselves as a fairytale marriage, they married on thrones. I thought it important to expose the fairytale as a sham.’
Jay: ‘What products had the Beckhams sold on this image?’
Thurlbeck: ‘He was promoting Brylcreem, sponsored left, right and centre.’
Was Brylcreem using his family image? Jay suggested there was a difference between ‘implied’ and ‘expressed’ representation - which is becoming a central issue.
Max Mosley orgy splash: Thurlbeck accepted that without the Nazi theme, there would have been no public interest justification.
On three occasions, the judge intervened forcefully in seeking answers to questions.
To one, downplaying to his own influence, Thurlbeck said: ‘Chief reporter, news editor - grand sounding titles, they don’t call the shots at all.’
The judge also told him to a name the newsdesk person who, he said, had instructed him to send the orgy women emails described as ‘close to blackmail’.
Jay asked if such pressure was normal journalistic practice.
Thurlbeck: ‘It would happen all the time, the broadsheets, TV stations...offering anonymity in return for the story.’
Leveson: ‘Did you give any thoughts to Article 8 rights (privacy) of the women? Yes or no?’
Thurlbeck: ‘There was no discussion of it.’
In his appearance, Tom Crone was asked about News International’s ‘one rogue reporter’ defence. He said: ‘My feeling was this would probably come back to bite the company.’
Leveson: ‘You were certainly right there.’
By my reckoning, we’ve had half a millions words at least up to now. There are many more to come. At the same time, there are parallel hearings before other courts and committees, as well as additional revelations, official and unofficial. There is even doubt about whether the NotW was involved in Milly Dowler’s phone hacking, which is what triggered off the inquiry. But it is now way beyond mere hacking in that it is dealing with press standards as a whole.
From my own observations, I’d say that Lord Leveson is deeply committed to press freedom. But he is identifying ethical and cultural failings which have become institutionalised in that journalists think they are ‘normal’. His task is to decide how these can be rectified without damaging free expression and commercial viability.
If you have not started following it in detail, I suggest you don’t. If you do, you’ll end up in The Priory. I’ve just booked my bed.