LIFE OF SIR BRIAN LEVE­SON

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - IN­TER­VIEW BY SANDY RASHTY

BRIAN LEVE­SON is anx­ious. One of the most pow­er­ful judges in Bri­tain is about to em­bark on an ex­pe­ri­ence that he nor­mally, stu­diously, avoids. He is about to be in­ter­viewed by a news­pa­per jour­nal­ist. This is the man, you will re­call, whose 2011 Leve­son In­quiry forced some of the most pow­er­ful, provoca­tive and con­tro­ver­sial jour­nal­ists, me­dia moguls and ed­i­tors to re­veal the in­ner­most se­crets of their trade, an­swer ques­tions they’d never been asked, and at times to hu­mil­i­ate them­selves. All of it in front of an as­ton­ished pub­lic, who watched the live, tele­vised in­quiry ex­pose a cul­ture of snoop­ing into the lives of celebri­ties like Hugh Grant and J K Rowl­ing; mem­bers of the pub­lic such as Madeleine McCann’s par­ents; and even the mur­der vic­tim Milly Dowler.

Sir Brian him­self has al­ways re­fused to speak about how that ex­pe­ri­ence af­fected him. Par­tic­u­larly when vo­cif­er­ous sec­tions of the me­dia cas­ti­gated him for what many re­garded as a naïve ap­proach and an un­nec­es­sar­ily harsh crack­down on an al­ready reg­u­lated in­dus­try tarred by a hand­ful of ma­lign in­di­vid­u­als and, at best, in­com­pe­tent man­agers.

He is ob­vi­ously a tense and se­ri­ous man; one of the more tac­i­turn in­di­vid­u­als I’ve in­ter­viewed. The start of our 90 min­utes is punc­tured with hes­i­ta­tion, cau­tion and a three­minute break while he re­con­sid­ers whether he should have agreed to the in­ter­view in the first place. Still, we pro­ceed. Sir Brian, I soon learn, is a man of his word.

But even a few gen­tle ques­tions elicit a lawyer-like de­fen­sive­ness. Per­haps that is not sur­pris­ing, given that he is be­ing in­ter­viewed by a mem­ber of an in­dus­try that’s still wounded by his in­quiry.

Just a few weeks ago, the press­backed Leve­son’s Il­lib­eral Legacy re­port was pub­lished and most news­pa­pers warned that the judge’s rec­om­men­da­tions posed an un­prece­dented threat to press free­dom.

When I ask him about the reper­cus­sions of his in­quiry, he re­sponds: “What you are do­ing is per­suad­ing me that I should have never given this in­ter­view. I do not want to in­crease my pro­file.”

We could, I sup­pose, dis­cuss his il­lus­tri­ous le­gal history and roles in tri­als such as those in­volv­ing mur­derer Rose­mary West and the killers of Damilola Tay­lor (even­tu­ally, we do). But it’s this line of in­quiry that, ob­vi­ously, most in­ter­ests me.

“I just did what I was sup­posed to do,” he says. “I pro­duced my re­port and it is there for peo­ple to talk about. I just get on with the job I’m do­ing.’’

Was he, I ask, emo­tion­ally wounded by head­lines that ap­peared af­ter his rec­om­men­da­tions? Head­lines that called him “Old liv­erspot” and “In­cred­i­bly naïve”; sketches that painted him as “Brian the Beak” or even a book by one Fleet Street vet­eran that com­pared him to King Canute, al­leg­ing he had tried “to stem the tide of free ex­pres­sion from sweep­ing on to the shores of Great Bri­tain”.

“In terms of emo­tions, judges are no dif­fer­ent from any­one else,” he says. “But I have found that I have been put un­der the spot­light as a re­sult of the work I have done. Peo­ple have come up to me in the street and shared their views. Not only in this coun­try, but it has hap­pened to me when on hol­i­day in Italy and else­where. And I just cope with it. I have al­ways pre­ferred to re­main com­par­a­tively un­der the radar, which has not been helped by the In­quiry of course.’’

Clearly Sir Brian, a con­tem­pla­tive and deeply pri­vate man, would rather the In­quiry be left to speak for it­self. But that’s im­pos­si­ble when you step in front of the me­dia’s glare and be­come a pub­lic fig­ure your­self. Surely he can see how im­por­tant it is to speak about it?

“I sim­ply can­not talk about reg­u­la­tion of the press be­cause, if I do, I dump­my­self in­tothemid­dleof a po­lit­i­cal de­bate which is go­ing on to this day,” he says. “There is sup­posed to be a sec­ond limb to the In­quiry which can only start when all the crim­i­nal cases have been con­cluded. [The re­port] could not go into who did what­towhombe­causetherew­e­re­all sorts of pros­e­cu­tions pend­ing.”

You mean peo­ple like Re­bekah Brooks (the for­mer ed­i­tor of the Sun and News of the World), I ask? What, I won­der, does he think of her res­ur­rec­tion as chief ex­ec­u­tive of News UK, the com­pany she left in con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances, a com­pany that was found to have used wide­spread phone-hack­ing — a prac­tice which she was cleared in court of ever sanc­tion­ing or know­ing about. Fol­low­ing his ex­haus­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the me­dia’s dark arts, Sir Brian Leve­son re­veals the toll it took on his life — and the up­bring­ing that took him to one of the top ju­di­cial posts in the land

‘‘Tell me about it,’’ he says, his mut­tered words seem­ingly laced with sar­casm.

But he’s quick to re­mind me: “I know it has been three years since my find­ings were pub­lished but jour­nal­ists are still be­ing in­ves­ti­gated. It is up to the gov­ern­ment now. There will come a time when some­one has to de­cide what will hap­pen with the sec­ond limb of the In­quiry.

“I’ve done a re­port, it’s there. What has hap­pened since its pub­li­ca­tion is for oth­ers to de­ter­mine — not for me. It’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate for me as a serv­ing judge to get in­volved in those kinds of dis­cus­sions. I have to be very care­ful, be­cause the one thing I can-

not talk about is pol­i­tics. I will not talk about is­sues of poli­cies and law which might come up to me for de­ci­sion, be­cause if I did com­ment, some­one would say to me: ‘Well you have got a pre-judged view’. There is a risk that by ex­press­ing a view on pol­icy, judges dis­qual­ify them­selves from a later chal­lenge to that pol­icy.”

That is partly why he has re­peat­edly re­fused re­quests to speak. Even his lec­ture on “Se­cu­rity and Jus­tice’’ for the 13th Isa­iah Berlin an­nual lec­ture at Hamp­stead Syn­a­gogue this month was free from any men­tion of press reg­u­la­tions. Do­ing so, he says, could af­fect any fu­ture hear­ing he is asked to sit on.

And this, I think, gets to the heart of Sir Brian’s char­ac­ter. On tele­vi­sion, the 66-year-old ap­peared stern, eye­brows al­ways fur­rowed, his hands cushioning his chin as he lis­tened in­tently to emo­tive tes­ti­mony from vic­tims of phone-hack­ing and the be­mused ram­blings of un­com­fort­able ed­i­tors not used to such cross-ex­am­i­na­tion.

His in­tim­i­dat­ing, al­most pon­tif­i­cal earnest­ness, though, be­lies a heart­felt pas­sion for right over wrong and for the law’s abil­ity to ex­pose rule­break­ing. His in­stinct is not to grand­stand — even though the Leve­son In­quiry did end up as a bit of a show­trial — but to fol­low the strict rules of the law.

Sir Brian, it turns out, is a man ob­sessed with the end­less reg­u­la­tions and in­ter­pre­ta­tions of law that can be­muse the rest of us.

“The law is a crit­i­cal part of our so­ci­ety,” he says. “It must be val­ued and recog­nised. The prac­tice of the law is equally a crit­i­cal part of our so­ci­ety. I think there is a real con­cern about the fu­ture of the law in the face of di­min­ished re­sources. As a so­ci­ety, we must en­cour­age some of our best lawyers to go to crim­i­nal law, be­cause it is ac­tu­ally im­por­tant that the sys- tem works co­her­ently and fairly, so we con­vict the guilty and ac­quit the in­no­cent, and that re­quires ca­pa­ble lawyers do­ing the job.

“In law, you never stop learn­ing and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, ev­ery case is dif­fer­ent. The great thing about my job is there is no rou­tine, the cases may look the same but they are all deal­ing with dif­fer­ent peo­ple who rubbed against life’s prob­lems in dif­fer­ent ways. And that’s why I say that the job not only re­quires hard work, but hu­mil­ity. Ev­ery­thing you do af­fects some­body’s life and some­body’s lib­er­ties. “The oath that I took was to do right to all man­ner of peo­ple af­ter the laws and us­ages of the realm with­out fear or favour, af­fec­tion or ill will. Peo­ple say fre­quently that we judges do not live in the real world. It is true that I have had a tremen­dously priv­i­leged back­ground and ed­u­ca­tion; but my pro­fes­sional ca­reer has brought me into daily con­tact with peo­ple who have not had those ad­van­tages, who were strug­gling with enor­mous dif­fi­cul­ties in their lives and who have had to con­front those dif­fi­cul­ties with as much for­ti­tude as they could muster. That is a very hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence.”

It’s ironic, then, that his fam­ily wanted him to be a doc­tor. Born into a tra­di­tional Jewish house­hold in Liver­pool, Sir Brian, the mid­dle child of three, idolised his fa­ther. The two looked alike and would spend their evenings hav­ing long talks. They would play golf to­gether in Hoy­lake, the Mersey­side sea­side town where they would hol­i­day ev­ery year with other Jewish fam­i­lies. His first real taste of the law would come when he ac­com­pa­nied his psy­chi­a­trist fa­ther to a men­tal health tri­bunal.

“I have no doubt that I have in­her­ited the em­pa­thy my fa­ther had for peo­ple,” he says. “Some­times, I swear in judges and I make the point of say­ing to them: ‘Be­ing a judge not only re­quires con­tin­ued dili­gence, but also hu­mil­ity’. The most im­por­tant per­son in court is the per­son who is go­ing to lose. They have to feel that they have had a fair crack of the whip; a fair trial.”

He at­tended cheder with his sib­lings and was bar­mitz­va­hed at the Child­wall He­brew Con­gre­ga­tion, where he also sang in the syn­a­gogue’s choir. As a stu­dent at Liver­pool Col­lege, he played bridge and com­peted in his school’s chess team.

“My child­hood was nor­mal,” he adds. “At least, I do not think there was any­thing ex­cep­tional about it.”

Bizarrely, con­sid­er­ing what was to hap­pen to his ca­reer, it was a TV show that changed his life. Boyd QC, a drama se­ries star­ring Michael Deni­son about a Lon­don lawyer try­ing crim­i­nal cases in the 1950s, trans­fixed him and put him in direct dis­agree­ment with his mother, Elaine, who was de­ter­mined he’d be a doc­tor like his un­cle and fa­ther. “My mother was al­ways keen that I be­come a doc­tor on the ba­sis that, what­ever hap­pened, the world would al­ways need doc­tors and you could es­tab­lish your­self in any coun­try as one.”

She per­suaded him to take science sub­jects ahead of univer­sity. He con­ceded and was one of the few undergraduates to have sat Ox­ford Univer­sity en­trance ex­ams in science, to se­cure a place on a hu­man­i­ties course. “I agreed to keep my op­tions open,” he re­calls. “If I would have sug­gested the same thing to my three chil­dren, they would have told me ex­actly what to do.”

Sir Brian — whose grand­par­ents set­tled in Bri­tain from Rus­sia and Poland at the turn of the cen­tury — adds: “My mother was not wor­ried about be­ing in Eng­land, but she saw medicine as an eas­ily trans­portable skill.” How­ever, the law won out and he be­came the first in his fam­ily to pursue a le­gal ca­reer.

The Leve­son fam­ily is ex­traor­di­nar­ily close. His el­dest sis­ter Diane is a mag­is­trate who still lives in Liver­pool and his younger brother Clive is a doc­tor in Manch­ester. They’ve never spo­ken be­fore about their brother, his ca­reer, the In­quiry and the dev­as­tat­ing emo­tional im­pact it had on Sir Brian and the en­tire fam­ily.

Un­til now. From speak­ing to Clive, it’s abun­dantly clear that they have a great deal of love for each other, and that, de­spite the ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­tances, the bonds be­tween the three of them (they lost their par­ents when the chil­dren were in their 30s) have been strength­ened by Sir Brian’s tor­rid time in the spot­light.

“He was my big brother, he was lovely,’’ says Clive, re­call­ing what it was like to grow up with his il­lus­tri- ous sib­ling. “He was a se­ri­ous child and was one of those guys who, if he said he would do some­thing, he did it and did it well. I had the prob­lem of try­ing to live up to him — even if he wasn’t good at some­thing, he was al­ways a trier. He al­ways worked hard at ev­ery­thing. He was no ath­lete but he tried. The one at­tribute he’s al­ways had is he has al­ways been an ex­tremely hard worker.”

I ask Sir Brian what words he thought his sib­lings would to use to de­scribe the char­ac­ter he had as a child. “Grey, hard­work­ing and dull,’’ is his in­stant re­ply. Clive, how­ever, sees it dif­fer­ently. “Stu­dious,” he says.

Smart, too. Clive is adamant that his brother knew he would bear the full force of the en­su­ing me­dia wrath from the mo­ment the in­quiry was an­nounced. “I think that is why he had the In­quiry tele­vised,” he says.

“Oth­er­wise, the only peo­ple who would be re­port­ing on it would be the very peo­ple he was in­ves­ti­gat­ing — the press. And the press de­lib­er­ately mis­in­ter­preted the whole in­quiry to un­der­mine ev­ery­thing. At no time was he talk­ing about ‘gov­ern­men­treg­u­la­tion of the press’.

“I never got de­pressed about the at­ten­tion. Half the time, the head­lines were al­most funny — es­pe­cially when you know that the per­son they are de­scrib­ing in sketches is not the real per­son they are talk­ing about.”

And does he think the cov­er­age af­fected the real Sir Brian? “I do not think so. He knew what he was up against, he knew what was hap­pen­ing through­out and that was one of the rea­sons he pre­sented his re­port and then chose to not dis­cuss it — on the prin­ci­ple that the re­port stands as it is. He’s mind­ful that things can be taken out of con­text. That goes with his job as a bar­ris­ter and a judge as well as do­ing the re­port.”

How­ever, if the events didn’t have an overt emo­tional im­pact on the broth­ers, they most cer­tainly did — and still do — on their sis­ter Diane.

She cries sev­eral times dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion and she has to hold her­self to­gether, her voice reg­u­larly trem­bling, when she talks about how proud she is of Sir Brian’s achieve­ments. “I am very proud of him,” she says. “Clive and I have been 100 per cent sup­port­ive of ev­ery­thing he has done.

“He is one of the kind­est peo­ple I know. He is very sup­port­ive of any­thing that I have needed. The In­quiry af­fected me dur­ing the mag­is­tracy be­cause all my col­leagues knew he was my brother. Peo­ple I worked

‘ I’m sure that my fam­ily would call me grey and dull’

Sir Brian and three of those who gave ev­i­dence to his in­quiry, JK Rowl­ing, Hugh Grant and Re­bekah Brooks

PHOTO: X

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