Leveson and Major bond over misleading press reporting

Sir John Major at the Leveson inquiry
Sir John Major at the Leveson inquiry
Alex Stevenson By

Lord Justice Leveson unexpectedly agreed with Sir John Major this morning as the former prime minister described his thoughts being misinterpreted by journalists.

The high court judge has faced intense media scrutiny over the conduct of his inquiry into the culture, ethics and practice of the press. His work has had an intensely political edge to it thanks to No 10's use of the inquiry to effectively try under-fire culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Sir John, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 1997, described the press as a "source of wonder" because of his experience of reading newspapers each morning.

"I learned what I thought that I didn't think, what I said that I didn't say, what I was about to do that I wasn't about to do," he said.

Lord Justice Leveson replied, to considerable laugher in court room 73: "I've had that same experience."

His off-the-cuff comment is a reminder of the way his own experience with the coverage of his inquiry will be an important factor determining his final recommendations.

The intervention came as Sir John suggested inaccuracies were the result of exaggerations rather than straightforward untruths.

"They either reprint what is stale or they find a new angle to it," he said. "They'll take an angle and stretch it because that is all they can do."

Sir John suggested declining readership levels were responsible for the trend, which also reflected a pressure on editors to mix news with comment.

"What I hope for is action that will lift the worst of the press to the standards of the best of the press," he added. The ex-PM said freedom of the press had to be balanced with measures to protect individuals "from what is untrue, unfair and malicious".

Sir John contrasted his predecessor Margaret Thatcher's strong relationship with the press with his own, which he said was characterised by a "quixotic" reluctance to pursue positive press coverage.

Sir John said he thought doing so was "rather undignified", adding: "I don't think it's the role of the prime minister to court the press."

He continued: "I didn't inherit the naturally close affinity that my predecessor had earned with the press over a long period of time. On a human level, from the point of view of the press, if they have a prime minister who they don't know, who seems to be keeping his distance... it's perfectly understandable it's easier to be hostile."

Despite not acting on the negative coverage he admitted that he was "much too sensitive" about the ways newspapers wrote about him.

"It is a basic human emotion to get a bit ratty about it," he said. Sir John insisted that he believed the way newspapers perceived his premiership was not reflected in broader public opinion, however.

"I never found anything but a considerable degree of friendliness when I went round the country," he explained.

Sir John was ousted from power in the massive 1997 landslide that swept Tony Blair and New Labour to power, leaving the Conservatives out of government for 13 years.

Mr Blair's culture of 'spin' and the introduction of Alastair Campbell as director of communications introduced what Sir John criticised as the politicisation of the way the government talked to journalists.

"With an independent civil servant the press lobby knew they were going to get the unvarnished truth without any political gloss or spin," he explained.

"I think there is a distinction between a gloss and a deliberate attempt to deceive the way in which the news is presented. Once you move towards the politicisation of the government information service you move into a sphere where the news can be perverted rather than presented accurately and without spin to the media at large."


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