Lord Justice Leveson questioned David Cameron’s support for his inquiry into the press, police and politics in a phone call to Britain’s top civil servant, the Standard revealed.
The judge leading the probe was deeply concerned after the prime minister appeared to back Education Secretary Michael Gove, who claimed the inquiry had created a “chilling atmosphere” towards free speech.
The Appeal Court judge, who is leading the year-long investigation established by Cameron last July, phoned Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to check whether the government still had confidence in his work.
He was upset with a statement made in the Commons by the Conservative leader shortly after Gove gave a speech defending the freedom of the press in February.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron was asked by a Labour MP about his Tory colleague’s comments to political journalists at a Press Gallery luncheon.
He said: “It was right to set up the Leveson inquiry, and that is a decision fully supported by the entire government, but I think my right honourable friend (Gove) is making an important point, which is this: even as this inquiry goes on, we want to have a vibrant press that feels it can call the powerful to account, and we do not want to see it chilled - and although sometimes one may feel some advantage in having it chilled, that is not what we want.”
A senior source said Sir Jeremy, the most senior civil servant in Whitehall, checked with the prime minister and then assured Lord Justice Leveson he had No 10’s full support. Since the row, Downing Street has warned ministers not to provide a “running commentary” on the inquiry.
It is understood that Leveson believes his probe should be treated as formal court proceedings and politicians should be banned from commenting on it until he publishes his report later this year.
The clash erupted after Gove told a House of Commons Press Gallery lunch in February that the Leveson inquiry had created a “chilling atmosphere” towards freedom of expression and attempts to tighten newspaper regulation could result in “a cure worse than the original disease”.
The former Times journalist said that illegality within the Murdoch media empire should be “vigorously policed” but warned the government should not over-react to the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
In an apparent swipe at Lord Justice Leveson, Gove added there was a danger of regulation being imposed by “judges, celebrities, and the establishment...all of whom have an interest in taking over from the press as arbiters of what a free press should be”.
Gove repeated his arguments when he gave formal evidence to the inquiry last month.
He described Rupert Murdoch as a “great man” and said journalists were “exercising a precious liberty” when they wrote articles.
In a tense exchange, the judge snapped back: “Gove, I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don’t.” Lord Justice Leveson has had a tense relationship with Westminster since he began his investigation into newspaper ethics. When his inquiry uncovered e-mails that threatened the position of Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary refused to fully explain himself to the Commons until he had appeared before Leveson. This angered Commons Speaker John Bercow, who warned Hunt that he was still accountable to Parliament.
A Downing Street source declined to comment.