Potential witnesses to the Leveson inquiry into press ethics chose not to give evidence because they feared they would later be “monstered” by newspapers, the inquiry’s lead counsel has said.
Robert Jay QC, who is now formally known as Mr Justice Jay, told a House of Lords committee on Wednesday that the inquiry encountered “difficulties” because some witnesses were fearful of speaking out.
“There were witnesses who did not want to speak out against the press because their perception was, to use a horrible word, that they would be monstered by the press at some later date,” he said. “I don’t want to comment on how well-based their perceptions were but it was certainly a strong perception which gave rise to difficulties.”
In one of his first public appearances since the conclusion of the inquiry last November, Jay refused to be drawn into the political row over the future of press regulation.
He backed Lord Justice Leveson’s decision to “draw a line underneath it all” and declined to offer an opinion on the parliamentary royal charter published by the government last Friday.
But the newly appointed high court judge was less guarded when asked about how the long-running inquiry dealt with sensitive witnesses.
Asked if the fears of some witnesses had proved a disadvantage to the inquiry, he told peers: “It’s difficult to know because you are proving a negative. But I suspect there were people out there who could have given effective, relevant evidence but just didn’t want to.”
Jay, who questioned witnesses from David Cameron to Rupert Murdoch and Sienna Miller in the inquiry, said it was right for their testimony to be broadcast live even though it introduced some shortcomings.
“I was strongly of the view that it should have been televised otherwise the press would report on it as they saw fit. We needed an objective eye in the little camera,” he said.
The judge, who became known at the inquiry for his varied and colourful vocabulary, peppered his evidence to the Lords committee with a handful of Latin phrases.
He described Lord Justice Leveson as the “functus officio” of the inquiry and pointed out that its terms of reference had the “imprimatur” of cross-party support. Allegations of phone hacking, meanwhile, proved to be “terra incognita” for the inquiry, Jay said.
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