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Political sketch: Leveson's battle for linguistic supremacy

The Education Secretary's afternoon at the Courts.

New Statesman
Michael Gove. Photo: Getty Images

 

When Cicero, in the fourth book of his second oration against Verres, wrote "o tempora o mores," little did he know the school swot from Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen would trot it out at the Leveson inquiry - but then he'd never met Michael Gove.

The one-time Times Leader writer - now Education Secretary - took a half day off his hols to trot his brain and its attendant vocabulary down to the Royal Courts of Justice to question why time was being wasted.

For those who have yet to meet Mr Gove, imagine a male version of Miss Jean Brodie, prim and proper but with a large streak of self-satisfaction.

He arrived at the inquiry with baggage having described its "chilling atmosphere" as a danger to free speech in an address to journalists earlier this year.

And he had clearly warmed to his theme as he took his place in the seat polished by the appearance yesterday of Tony Blair whose more jaundiced view of the press had been presented.

A man supremely confident in his own opinions, as befits someone paid to trot them out daily in The Thunderer, Mr Gove made it clear from the outset that he was there to lecture and not to be lectured.

Chief Inquisitor Robert Jay appeared a bit baffled by his new witness whose mouth seemed constantly more full of words than would fit and so even he, the man who brought us "propinquity" just recently, could only listen to someone never knowingly contradicted - who had he been in a real court would have been described as hostile.

Many and grand words, several of them in foreign languages, were spoken as the two men jousted for linguistic superiority but the Scotsman saw off his competitor as sentences rang around the courtroom.

We did discover that Rupert Murdoch, whom Gove seemed to meet on a very regular basis, was "one of the most impressive and significant figures over the last fifty years," and someone with whom he had never discussed anything relevant to the inquiry at any time and in any place.

He also had been "privileged", as he put it, to meet Viscount Harmsworth owner of the Mail stable and equally privileged to meet Richard Desmond, owner of much more besides.

And if that were not enough he had met Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, and "one of the most impressive editors of our age".

Having guaranteed good coverage in more than half of Fleet Street tomorrow - not to mention job security after the general election - Mr Gove turned his attention to the threat to freedom he clearly believes the inquiry could pose.

He asked if the cure might be worse than the disease as he rattled off word perfect replies to anything Jay put to him, and even Lord Leveson got short shrift when he tried to prick his bumptiousness.

And there was little love lost when Lord L's patience finally ran out during Lecture XXVI on Freedom: "I don't need to be told about the importance of free speech, I really don't," he said rather testily.

But Michael refused to be pricked and on he went to remind the judge to be careful when drawing up his recommendations.

Then it was back to the Department of Education where no doubt they had taken advantage of the headmaster's absence and gone to the pub.