Monday, December 19, 2011

The Leveson Inquiry: Highly Relevant Reality TV

Part One: The players

Great Britain is known for its quality television and the drama currently running in London and presided over by Lord Justice Leveson is TV of the highest order for anyone with an interest in the current state of media in the UK. Public outrage over phone hacking by Murdoch-owned newspaper News of the World brought the inquiry into being but the inquiry is reaching far beyond that one issue, delving deep into the heart of the British press establishment.

The stakes are high – LJL must deliver a report to Parliament in late 2012 detailing what he has learned about the culture, ethics and practices of the Press, to include his examination of its relationship with politicians and the police. Further, his report will make recommendations for a new approach to press regulation, which will likely gut the current Press Complaints Commission. It’s serious, important, timely and juicy viewing and it all unfolds daily via live webcasts.

The cast of characters thus far has been impressive. The celebrities include Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, J.K. Rowling and Charlotte Church; the victims include the Dowler and McCann families, Max Mosely, Mary-Ellen Field, Chris Jeffries, Margaret Watson and Garry Flitcroft. Private investigator Derek Webb, journalist Nick Davies, scholars, lawyers, newspaper editors and reporters - undercover and otherwise - round out the cast and more are to come.

The lawyers. The attorneys representing the newspapers are there, cast in the role of surrogate villains. Mr. Kaplan (who often looks like a deer caught in the headlights) and Mr. Davies (whose toothy smile is so off-putting one expects LJL to make a ruling from the bench that Mr. Davies may only ask questions sans smile) are the key players for the defense. The lawyer representing many of the victims, Mr. Sherborne, relishes his moments in the glare with a bit too much enthusiasm. He could also use a wardrobe intervention.

The counsel to the Inquiry are as different from one another as night and day. Lead counsel is Mr. Jay – serious, experienced, reserved (most of the time) and able. Mr. Jay often sprawls over his podium, face down in his notes, twisting his neck to one side and raising his head just enough to squeeze out his questions. When he gets wound up, which he does with certain of the witnesses, his questioning is brilliant and piercing and can leave a witness desperate for relief. I wouldn’t want to meet Mr. Jay in the witness box when he was riled. Now and then, however, just when Mr. Jay is closing in for the kill, the witness squirming, counsel for the newspapers poised to raise some sort of objection to prevent an incriminating utterance, LJL will interrupt Mr. Jay with a redundant question or clarification. It is maddening to witness and one can only imagine what Mr. Jay might wish to say were he not constrained by the protocols of the courtroom.

Mr. Barr is a wholesome-looking young attorney, junior to Mr. Jay, but capable of delivering a solid, focused interrogation. He is, however, regrettably burdened with a distracting habit of inserting “uh” between nearly every other word. He appears an able lawyer, but his questioning of the witnesses can be a bit nerve-wracking to watch.

Ms. Patry Hoskins, of “the woman on the left” twitter fame, is the ingénue among the key lawyers. She is a comely young woman with a soft Scottish brogue whose questioning can sometimes sound apologetic. Last week, she faced Derek Webb, a former police officer turned private investigator.

If there ever was a beauty and the beast moment in the Inquiry, this was it. Ms. Patry Hoskins ever so gently lobbed the questions in to the beefy, weathered, former cop who not only answered her but often had to be stopped from going too far and incriminating others. Ms. Patry Hoskins was soft-spoken, hesitant at times, unfailingly polite but devastatingly probative in her interrogation. It was good television.

The man at the center of the action is Lord Justice Leveson. He appears an unassuming man cast in a role at the center of one of the largest public media scandals of our time. He comes across as confident and in control of the proceedings, clear-headed in purpose and just a touch puckish. That’s the quality that makes him an interesting character to observe. Although he often sits with his brow furrowed, contemplating the oral evidence or perusing a text, now and then there is a brightening glint in his eyes as he gently corrects an attorney who has gone off on a tangent or asks a question from the bench of a witness whose testimony seems to him incredulous or surprising. It is that quality of demonstrating genuine curiosity that makes him an endearing character in this drama. He is the Lord Justice and seems to relish his role as such, but he never lords over the proceedings, rather choosing to guide it, nudge it here and there, while keeping its focus clear and its direction steady. The questions he poses from the bench can be a touch discordant with those of his inquiring counsel (as noted above with respect to Mr. Jay) but these interjections are few and the overall impression one takes away is of a judge who is in his element, a man well-suited to the task and enjoying every minute of it.