20 Apr 2012

An invisible witness at the Leveson Inquiry

Some of you may not have noticed that, squeezed in between Hugh Grant, J K Rowling and Charlotte Church during the opening stages of the Leveson Inquiry was one Jane Winter, director of British Irish Rights Watch (BIRW).

Under the spotlight

BIRW is an independent, award-winning non-governmental organisation that has been monitoring the human rights dimension of the conflict, and the peace process, in Northern Ireland since 1990.  Our vision is of a Northern Ireland in which respect for human rights is integral to all its institutions and experienced by all who live there, and we are proud that our services are used by people from all sides of the community.  Our mission is to secure respect for human rights in Northern Ireland and to disseminate the human rights lessons learned from the Northern Ireland conflict in order to promote peace, reconciliation and the prevention of conflict.  BIRW’s services are available, free of charge, to anyone whose human rights have been violated because of the conflict, without discrimination, and we take no position on whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or join a united Ireland.

Computer hacking

So what were we doing mixed up in the Leveson Inquiry?  Well, three of our clients, all of who had worked as British intelligence agents, had had their computers hacked, and highly sensitive email correspondence between Jane Winter and one of those clients has turned up on a hard drive seized by the police from a hacker paid by a private investigator hired by a branch of the Murdoch media empire.  Without breaching any of our client’s confidentiality, it would appear that in at least one case the hackers were trying to confirm the identity of a military intelligence agent who had been infiltrated deep into the IRA and was known as ‘Stakeknife’.  In another case, we have evidence that a Sunday newspaper printed information about a confidential meeting which took place in our office between one of our clients and lawyers acting for a man accused of involvement in a serious bombing in Northern Ireland (the man was later acquitted).

Public inquiries

Now, BIRW knows a thing or two about public inquiries.  We helped to bring about the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, and three other inquiries in Northern Ireland.  The Robert Hamill Inquiry concerned a sectarian murder of a young Catholic father which took place under the noses of armed police officers.  The Billy Wright Inquiry was about the murder inside the Maze prison of a dissident loyalist paramilitary.  The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry was into the death of a solicitor whose life had been threatened by police officers.  We also monitored all four inquiries, as well as the Baha Mousa Inquiry into the death of an Iraqi civilian at the hands of British soldiers using interrogation techniques developed in Northern Ireland.However, we never expected to find ourselves a Core Participant in an inquiry on our own behalf, and it has been an interesting experience.

Paparazzi interest

On the one hand, there has been ironic fact that the media are as fascinated by the Leveson Inquiry as at least some of them were in the events that brought about the Inquiry.  Two of the more famous Core Participants, Hugh Grant and Max Moseley, who are strong supporters of the aptly-named campaign group Hacked Off, very kindly threw a party for Core Participants and their lawyers at an exclusive Soho club.  Their idea was that it would be good for us all to get to know each other, and to meet away from the public eye in a relaxed atmosphere.  Details of the party were top secret, so Jane Winter was surprised, annoyed, but ultimately amused to find herself being snapped by the paparazzi as she entered the club, and to find the story all over the media the next day.  Similarly, when she turned up at the High Court to testify before the Inquiry, she was taken aback by having to run the gauntlet of a bank of press photographers and television cameras outside the building.

On the inside

On the other hand, there have been some unusual legal perspectives to be observed when one is on the inside of an inquiry looking out.  As soon as BIRW became aware that we might be involved in the hacking scandal, we sought legal advice.  Thus, by the time we were given Core Participant status we already had a solicitor, Simon Creighton of Bhatt Murphy.  Being a human rights group, BIRW has rather strong views on human rights matters, and in the Northern Ireland context we have regularly upheld the fundamental right to counsel of one’s own choice, as enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to a fair trial.  Inquiries, of course, are not trials, and in order to save the cost to the public purse, the Leveson Inquiry had appointed a single legal firm, Collyer Bristow, to represent all Core Participants.  Although this was not an unreasonable course of action, it was somewhat disconcerting to find that one had absolutely no say in one’s legal representative, which is not in any way meant to be taken as a criticism of Collyer Bristow, who have worked very hard to represent a very diverse group of clients.  It does mean, however, that one is bombarded with information addressed to all Core Participants, and that one has to sift it all to find out whether or not it is relevant to BIRW.  Not infrequently, we have had to turn to our ‘unofficial’ solicitor, Simon Creighton, to find out what our ‘official’ solicitor is on about.

Channelling questions

The Leveson Inquiry has also adopted a practice which we have come across before, in the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry, of channelling all questions to witnesses through Counsel to the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC, and his team.  This means that the Core Participants’ Counsel, David Sherbourne QC, rarely has the chance to open his mouth, which must be exceptionally frustrating for an able advocate.  Jane Winter appeared as a witness in the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry, and was on the stand for more than a day.  She found that Counsel to that Inquiry, who had to cover questions proposed by a number of Core Participants with conflicting interests, appeared to be acting as ‘good cop/bad cop’ in turn when examining her.  Her experience at the Leveson Inquiry was very different, as none of the Core Participants seemed to have any issues with her evidence.  However, she did witness another Core Participant, Christopher Jefferies – wrongly suspected of the murder of Jo Yates and treated abominably by the media –  having been treated gently throughout his testimony, being thrown a googly right at the end about the fact that he was publishing a book about his experiences.  To be fair, Counsel to the Inquiry apologised for putting the obviously hostile question to him, but it did rather underline BIRW’s view that it is preferable to know where a question is coming from, rather than having all questions put by a single barrister.

Division into modules

The Inquiry has also adopted the increasingly common practice of dividing itself up into modules.  In this case, there are four modules altogether:

• Module 1: The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour.

• Module 2: The relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest.

• Module 3: The relationship between press and politicians.

• Module 4: Recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.

The appearance

Jane Winter made her brief appearance in Module 1, but was put on notice that she is to be recalled at a later date to give further evidence.  So far, she has supplied three affidavits to the Inquiry, two of them concerning the hacking of her clients’ computers, and a third, which was read into the record of Module 2, expressing concern that the Metropolitan Police, with whose investigation into computer hacking she is co-operating, are investigating allegations of criminality on the part of the media, while they themselves are under investigation for having allegedly leaked information to the media.  The Leveson Inquiry has, it seems, thrown up a number of ironies and issues to date, and it is not over yet.

You can find out more about the Leveson Inquiry at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk and about British Irish RIGHTS WATCH at http://www.birw.org




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