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Rolf Harris

Rolf Harris lawyers used Leveson threat to intimidate press, but newspapers should have called their bluff sooner

By Chris Boffey

July 1, 2014 | 5 min read

Why are the Bible and the Qur'an like the Leveson Report? Silly question maybe, and not one for the great theologians to worry over, but there is one aspect common to all three: for good or evil, tracts and ideas will be taken out and used to suit the purposes of individuals or organisations.

Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault

Take the case of Rolf Harris who, on Friday, is facing a significant jail term after being convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault on young women and girls. After his initial arrest, lawyers for the Australian entertainer sent threatening letters to media organisations quoting Lord Leveson and ordering them not to reveal his identity under pain of damages.

In his report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, Leveson had said: "I think that it should be made clear that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example where there may be immediate risk to the public) the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press or the public."

Harris's legal team, Harbottle and Lewis, put the fear of God into the media immediately post-Leveson and that continued for five months until the Sun had the bottle to break the story on its front page.

Belatedly, newspaper lawyers realised that Leveson had no weight in law – it was not backed by statute – and the public had a right to know. What's more, they had the precedent of the Stuart Hall trial behind them with the revelations that many women had come forward after the former television presenter's arrest and some of their evidence formed the basis of the trial that led to his conviction.

This was also the case of Harris. More victims came forward after his arrest and now he faces not only jail but possible court cases in his native Australia where he is alleged to have been guilty of a string of sex offences.

Lawyers are paid to get their clients off and there should be no criticism of Harbottle and Lewis in citing Leveson. I am pretty sure the good law lord, in making his suggestion, did not intend for the guilty to walk free, however that could have been the consequence.

Those who have been arrested should be named, not only because it is a right of the free press but to ensure that the law is transparent and fair. From secret arrests spring secret trials and unknown suspects being incarcerated in unknown places.

But the media industry must take some share of the blame. Why did it take five months for newspapers to call the bluff of the lawyers? One of the maxims of reporting is that "good journalism is telling people something that other people want to keep secret". I was taught this as a young reporter and it stands as good now as it did then.

Leveson is not a bogey man and his report should not been seen as scripture, carved in tablets of stone to become the bible for the industry. David Cameron fell upon Leveson when he was attacked in the Commons for taking Andy Coulson into Downing Street. "Read Leveson," he screamed at at the leader of the opposition. Leveson is an opinion, not fact.

On the whole the Leveson Inquiry was no bad thing. Cameron set it up as an expediency when he was in political trouble and despite that it did shed light on the murkier side of the job, giving the newspaper industry a necessary jolt.

What it was not to do, and Leveson was at pains to point this out, was to muzzle the free press in this country. Authorities and people are using the the report to stop councillors, police, government officials and so on from talking to the media. They are using it for their own narrow advantage.

We have laws in this country, as recent and forthcoming trials involving the press, show. What we don't need is jobsworths and smart lawyers making the rules up based on their reading of Leveson and what we must have is a shrewd, uproarious media fighting at every turn.

Richard Stott, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, always said that the relationship between the press and politicians should be that of a dog and a lamppost. Not a bad place to start.

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