As someone scandalised by the despicable phone hacking practices of our gutter press long before the story broke about the hacking of Millie Dowler’s voice mail messages, I thought the Leveson Inquiry wouldn’t be telling me anything new.
And maybe it hasn’t. But what it has done has confirmed and compounded how profoundly scurrilous the actions of the tabloid press have been. When it came to getting the “story” no behaviour, and I mean no behaviour, was off-limits. If you haven’t been listening to the proceedings, let me bring you up to date.
From Millie Dowler’s parents and their heart-breaking testimony of private moments grieving for their daughter were splashed across the front page. How they were given false hope when messages from Millie’s phone had been deleted.
From Hugh Grant debunking that tired tabloid myth that film publicists need the oxygen of tabloid publicity.
From Steve Coogan about the lies written about him during a friend’s very painful episode. (Owen Wilson’s alleged suicide attempt) and how it was better to say nothing so as not to give the story “legs”.
Sienna Miller as a 21 old year old girl being chased down the road at nighttime by 10 to 15 men with cameras and other cameramen spitting at her to get the reaction shot. Of having a terminally ill child photoshopped out of a picture so the tabloid could make up a story about her being drunk and abusive.
And the McCanns, still searching for their daughter, talking about the lies printed about them, sometimes opinions of one official being printed as cold fact. Cameramen swarming their car, banging on the windows, frightening their other children. (Indeed a journalist from the Daily Mail on 5live after their testimony said the McCanns let the Express continue to print all those lies about their missing daughter so they could get a better payout for the Madeleine fund, which was broke. Words failed me that afternoon. It was a real insight into the culture of the tabloid journalist. People so mean-spirited, so lacking in any kind of compassion of fellow humans, yet are the conduit for information and opinion to a large swath of society. As a force of malign influence it was genuinely frightening.)
On and on it continued, huge waves of damming testimony detailing deeply shameful actions of a section of the British press.
J K Rowling on receiving a note from a journalist, in her 5 year old’s school book bag. About how no-one gives you a manual when you become a house-hold name, so she mistakenly thought if she didn’t include her children in any publicity they would left alone. And how wrong she was.
Even today Charlotte Church about the devastating effect on her family when they too became cannon fodder for the papers, how people at Murdoch allegedly asked her to waive a £100,000 fee in lieu of good publicity at the beginning of her career, and how she was advised this was a good deal. How it made her feel as a 15 year old girl when a paper ran a clock counting down the days until she reached the age of consent.
Anne Diamond, also today, about the death of her baby son, how reporters were at her door an hour after the tragic event. How she wrote to every editor in Fleet Street asking them for privacy at the funeral. How the Sun defied her wishes and printed a picture, this after a phone call from the editor requesting permission was denied by the family. The editor’s words ” we are running it, the picture is so strong”.
The same themes recurred, press complaints commission were powerless, it was often better not to react. That if a complain was made and upheld, the subsequent apology was printed in the middle of the paper and the small fine was no real deterrent to printing lies and falsehoods to get a front page scoop.
How untrue stories were often printed with an anonymous by-line, how the ubiquitous “sources close to the” subject of the story were either obtained from hacked messages, or in many cases just made up.
And how papers saying they have cleaned up their act have done no such thing.
The most depressing element of this story is, it is all for profit. Tabloids are not in the business of information, they are in the business of making money, and lots of it, and all at the expense of truth and human suffering.
Over the course of the inquiry the extent to which tabloids themselves have covering this story is laughable, it has been so miniscule. This is what worries me the most. What happens if even after this tsunami of appalling practices has been evidenced, nothing changes? I want a free press, that uncovers political and corporate scandals, that covers wars and events aboard and works for the good of this wonderful country. I don’t want privacy laws that will impede true investigative journalists. But there needs to be a code of ethics drawn up and heavy penalties imposed for anyone contravening it.
And tabloid editors if I was drawing up your code my first rule would be this. If you print lies about anyone, your retraction will be writ large on the front page.
I live in hope.