Dec 13, 2012

The unbearable dullness of being Lord Justice Leveson

Lord Justice Leveson gave a speech in Melbourne last night, but the real action has been at off-the-record lunches and dinners. Crikey tails the Australian tour of one of the world's most talked-about media figures this year.

Matthew Knott

Former Crikey media reporter

At times, you had to wonder why he bothered. It's fair enough that Lord Justice Brian Leveson decided to escape the UK after releasing his 2000 page report into press standards. It's fair enough that he's not commenting on his findings. He sees the report as a judgment and judges, he says, do not enter into discussions about their judgments. And it's fair enough that a judge talks like a judge rather than a stand-up comedian. But to expect those who've attended his much-hyped public appearances in Sydney and Melbourne to say they heard anything truly new or significant? Tell him he's dreaming. In his speech at the University of Melbourne last night, Leveson argued that criminal and civil laws need to be applied to bloggers and tweeters as well as mainstream journalists. In an age where everyone is a publisher, new cross-border "cosmopolitan" approaches to law enforcement will be needed. Leaving the internet to regulate itself could undermine media standards by encouraging mainstream journalists to push legal boundaries, he said. All hard to disagree with. And Leveson's thoughts about online media are welcome, given he barely mentioned it in his report. But in terms of practical solutions to the issues he identified, he had little to offer. Should police -- who failed miserably to enforce existing anti-hacking laws in Britain -- really spend their time and resources tracking down 50,000 Twitter users who retweet celebrity super-injunctions? Should Australian authorities help enforce foreign privacy laws that jar with our understanding of free speech? How to stop the spread of damaging material while recognising national norms is, Leveson acknowledged, the "$64,000 question". But it's one that needs to be solved to "bring some order" to the internet. Generous observers described the speech as "lawyerly" and "careful"; other attendees concluded it was a "perfectly formed study in the numbingly self-evident". Leveson declined to answer a question from a BBC journalist on the tragic 2Day FM prank, noting that he may be called upon to decide on it in the future. The fact Leveson has been touted as a candidate for the UK's top legal post -- Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales -- also, perhaps, helps explains his cautious approach. The speeches, however, have only been the most visible aspect of Leveson's tour Downunder. The most interesting action has been happening away from the public gaze. After last night's speech he spoke at a private dinner at Melbourne University, held under the Chatham House rule. Leveson's Australian counterpart Ray Finkelstein QC was there, as was Press Council boss Julian Disney. Earlier in the week he spoke at a lunch at the Melbourne HQ of law firm Minter Ellison. Crikey understands Lord Mayor Robert Doyle was one of those who attended, as well as notable legal and media figures. Peter Bartlett, the Minter Ellison partner who organised Leveson's Australian visit, says it was a "gem of a lunch". "You don't find people of that seniority talking about media ethics or regulation very often. It was magic ... One of the media executives there told me it was the best lunch they had ever been to." Nevertheless, like in Leveson's public pronouncements, he was "very careful with what he said". Leveson also met with Victorian Chief Justice Marilyn Warren on Tuesday and spoke to Minter Ellison lawyers who were about to be admitted to practice in the Supreme Court. He attended their admittance ceremony that afternoon and -- much to his amusement -- sat in the traditional spot for official guests: the press box. The young lawyers were "in awe" of the Lord Justice, said Bartlett: "It's something they'll remember forever." Bartlett, chair of the advisory board at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Advanced Journalism, says he had the idea of approaching Leveson to visit Australia in March. "We were working out our speakers for the next 12 months," he recalls. "I said, 'The biggest person in media anywhere in the world is Lord Justice Leveson'. Everyone said, 'There's no point; it's a one in a million shot.' I said, 'Why not send him a letter?'" After receiving Leveson's reply -- an acceptance letter -- Bartlett travelled to London twice to organise logistics for the trip and has chaperoned him in Melbourne. "He might be a lord justice but there are no pretensions about him," Bartlett said. "He's just a delightful person in every way."

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