Welcome to Day 22 of our pop culture advent calendar. Every day we’ve been handing out a little treat in the shape of a mini-blog on something or someone we’ve admired or thought worth noting in 2012. Yesterday we took a break and slipped you a joke for your Christmas Cracker. Today we return to our highlights of 2012.
2012’s most surprising, brilliantly cast and oddly compelling drama wasn’t Homeland or Breaking Bad. At least, not if you were one of that peculiar subset of humanity who still give a shit about UK politics and journalism in the 21st century. If you had any interest in these, the thrill of 2012 was the cult three season blockbuster known as the Leveson Inquiry. These televisual epics were – in their scale, their efforts to focus in on different aspects of a decayed system, and their vast cast – the closest we’ve come to The Wire since its tragic demise.
Leveson debuted on our screens in late 2011 with a surprisingly starry cast (Hugh Grant, JK Rowling, Steve Coogan) lining up alongside some relative unknowns (the parents of Milly Dowler and Chris Jefferies, who’d been wrongly arrested for murder and promptly pushed onto front pages with a grotesque disregard both for justice and human rights). One by one, they revealed the full extent of amorality, sleaze and smear tactics UK newspapers wallowed in – by no means just the tabloids. It was a shocking and thrilling season, with villians every bit as compelling as the suffering heroes, from the understated malice of Paul Dacre to the jovial sleaze of Piers Morgan.
Like The Wire, season 2 sometimes went awry. Although crucial, its expose of the relationship between the press and police erred towards the technical, with Brian Paddick, Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates unable to generate the electric drama of season 1. But then came season 3 – which ran on our screens between April and June – and again paralleled the same season in The Wire by ratcheting up the tension, increasing the star wattage and exploring new extremes of drama and disgust.
It was also the season for the really big star turns. For someone who is as close as we have to a living Bond villian, Rupert Murdoch was surprisingly low key as a performer, though his wily obfuscations and deft deceptions reminded viewers of the reptile brain that made him one of the world’s most powerful men. Nonetheless, over two days you could see the stain of humiliation gradually seeping through a man used to controlling people from behind the scenes, not being exposed to the daylight. He left the enquiry as a reduced figure you could almost – almost – feel sorry for.
A showier turn came from pantomime villianess Rebekah Brooks – the ex Sun editor and Murdoch’s left hand woman -who affected an air of gentle, bemused surprise that she found herself the subject of such scrutiny, while casually dropping lethal morsels of gossip designed to hurt the people she now percieved as her betrayers (her revelations about David Cameron’s lovey dovey texts struck us as vengeful in intent, at least). She was poised and slippery, but not slippery enough: just 4 days after her appearance she was officially charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. “A witch hunt”, her husband declared: anyone who’d seen Leveson might have replied “well, if the noose fits.” Others might simply have recalled the many witch hunts Brooks herself had launched and considered that this justice did at least have poetry.
Another flashpoint of drama came with the appearance of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. The weeks before his appearance had seen an explosion of evidence that he had been fawningly in favour of Murdoch’s controversial attempt to seize control of Sky (and with it even more of the UK’s media), despite the neutrality his position as minister demanded. The greasy Murdoch factotum Fred Michel snatched his 15 minutes and revealed the very close relationship he had built up with Hunt’s adviser, Adam Smith, suggesting that Hunt’s camp had fed Murdoch with a stream of reassurance and insider information.
Smith was duly sacrificed with blood-curdling ruthlessness by Hunt, before the minister stepped up before Leveson and put on a bravura, day long performance as a rather sweet Tim Nice-But-Dim character, burbling about his honour and principles while freely admitting he didn’t know what any of his staff were doing any of the time in any way. Most thought he had probably saved his job but lost his career, given his clear incompetence. Staggeringly, everyone was wrong: Hunt went on to helm the successful Olympics and is now in charge of the NHS, the fifth largest employer in the world, at a time when it has never been under so much stress. Nothing could more dramatically illustrate the blithe, blase lack of responsibility of David Cameron than that appointment.
But in the end none of these superstars, media moguls or politicians stole the show – that was left to one Robert Jay QC, leading counsel for the inquiry. A 52 year old, hitherto unknown barrister, he proved master of an interrogatory style that combined elegant politeness with sudden, lethal questions, a thoughtful demeanour with a real taste for blood (at one point, while cross-examining the increasingly alarmed James Murdoch, he was seen to mouth to one colleague, with genuine relish, “this is such fun”.)
It was a style that reaped huge results in terms of unearthing the truth. Most of the big, shocking revelations that came throughout Leveson – the ones that exposed just how disgustingly interwoven political and journalistic interests had become, how low the media had been prepared to stoop in pursuit of a scoop and how utterly amoral the Murdochians truly are – came as a result of his brilliant, forensic questioning. But what made him famous (in the media at least) were his services not to truth but to the English language, with his extraodinary use of elegant and occasionally arcane vocabulary. In Jay’s gorgeously erudite world points were “pellucidly clear”, arguments were “nugatory” and all of it helped us to understand the “propinquity” of politicians and media.
What will the lasting effects of Leveson be? It’s too soon to tell. In the immediate wake of its revelations, David Cameron promised to implement any recommendations that weren’t “barmy”. Now that those recommendations are out he has shrugged that promise off with his typical disregard for truth or honour: the key insistence on a very soft legal framework for press regulation has been ignored. At the time of writing it looks like the media has managed to get away with it again. The fate of the Cameroons – who were exposed by Jay and Leveson as being utterly corrupted long before they even got their fingertips on power – may be cloudier.
But then, this isn’t an award for impact. It’s an award for drama and theatre, and this summer Leveson was for a little while the greatest show on earth.