Walking into Robert Jay’s office gives the feeling, at first, of taking a step back in time: the rows of dusty law literature lining the shelves and the classical music emanating from some corner of the room set the scene suitably. This image, however, quickly disappears when I realise that the musical vehicle is, in fact, an iPad (a new app I’m told); and perched quaintly on top of the central fireplace is a cardboard cut-out mask of none other than Rupert Murdoch. Well, at least he has a sense of humour.
Inevitably, the interview starts by diving head first into the events that propelled Jay into the limelight – the Leveson inquiry. On balance, Jay’s reputation received a pretty good ride: he was hailed for his calm patience and extraordinary use of vocabulary (remember “propinquity” and “bailiwick” to name but a few), and came out the other side with an enhanced and largely positive public profile, which is more than can be said for the string of politicians, media moguls and celebrities sitting on the receiving end of Jay’s questioning.
Scrutinising the likes of Cameron and Murdoch must have been a pretty daunting task, I suggest. Not for Robert Jay. “We had a pretty good idea from the beginning who we might be calling to give evidence. That was determined quite a long time in advance.” Not even a hint of nerves, I probe, considering the high profile nature of the inquiry? No chance. “The big difference between anything I’d done before was the omnipresent television camera; that took time adapting to. The subject matter was a million times more interesting to the public, in every sense of the term, than [what I’d done in the past].”
With his yellow-rimmed glasses, eye-catching ties and video evidence of Jay mouthing, “this is such fun!” to one of his colleagues, is it fair to say that he revelled in the limelight; that he was encouraged by the high profile nature of the case? “I’m glad I did it, yes. But if I had known from the outset the amount of public interest it was to have, I think I would have hesitated a little bit more before throwing my hat in the ring. I wouldn’t say I’m a shy person, but quite discrete.” Not by some people’s standards, it would seem; there were accusations over the summer of headline-grabbing fantasy allegations that he was purportedly dishing out – particularly in relation to his opening submission for the political module. In Jay’s view, however, he was simply marking out his territory. “We’d heard from Rupert Murdoch by then and I felt that it was necessary to demonstrate that the inquiry was wide awake to all the possibilities, if I could put it in those terms.”
Remaining on that subject of attention-seeking, I pluck up the courage to query the origins of those yellow-rimmed specs. “My wife chose those – I’m still wearing them. I do as I’m told, on all matters stylistic.” And just in case any fashion-conscious young men were wondering, “all my ties come from the same fashion house in Italy – Missoni – my wife buys them, although I decide what matches.” Murdoch and co may well benefit with a little advice from Mrs Jay on how to keep Mr Jay on the straight and narrow.
After hours and hours of questioning, Jay must have a pretty good insight into the real personalities behind all these profiles. Did his views change as a result of the inquiry? “Well, yes. I think it’s fair to say that we all start off with an idea of a political figure, but you’d have to be fast asleep or not interested in coming to bed at all not to have an opinion about it.” But any further insight into what his opinions may be is masked by the autopilot switch back to legal objectiveness, “I think as one’s knowledge improves, as it did considerably, the opinion deepens. Exactly how my opinions have changed, however, would tell you what precisely I think of them.”
Despite a high public profile, the inquiry has had its fair share of critics. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, claimed that the Leveson inquiry created a “chilling atmosphere” towards freedom of expression. Again, at this point, Jay’s legal instincts kick back into play before his real feelings can be expressed, “all I can say is that he’s entitled to that opinion. What I would say is that he would have to provide hard evidence on that. I would invite people to consider, in accepting that view, whether there really is hard evidence.” Jay is a frustrating interviewee; there are some undoubtedly strong opinions lingering just below the surface, but, like every good lawyer should be, he has withdrawn his emotions from the case, or if he hasn’t, he is at least very good at hiding them.
We round off the interview discussing the many obstacles facing students today who are attempting to pursue a career in law. “Unfortunately the bar now is extremely competitive, more than it was when I started.” He’s quick to add, however, that it was pretty difficult in his day too, lest we ever thought otherwise. “Ultimately today you need a first class honours degree from a top university, which is extremely tough. Or it’s having particular gifts of personality and charisma which most people don’t have, it has to be said.” And as for the allure of the Magic Circle and city solicitor’s firms? “The bar in my opinion is a far more interesting and fulfilling life than becoming a solicitor, which is fairly dull and of little public benefit.” Touché.