|J.K Rowling. Pic from The Telegraph|
Consider this a post scriptum, addendum (pick your favourite Latin term) to Tim's excellent post last Sunday, none of which I had any difficulty agreeing with.
This week I and thousands, millions of others have been held spellbound by the goings on at the Leveson Inquiry, set up to investigate the behaviour of the press in light of the recent phone hacking scandal (about which I've blogged here and here and, oh, here...yes, it's a bit of a hobby horse). A series of people whose lives have been ruined or disfigured by the intrusions of the press gave evidence about their experiences, and the cumulative effect was immensely sobering and startling, and we're only at the beginning.
|Steve Coogan. Pic from BBC.|
Yes, there were A-list celebs. Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, all of whom gave impassioned accounts of the multitude of indignities inflicted upon them by press and paparazzi. I'm always riled by the argument that says these people are famous and therefore they're fair game. Coogan, for example, has never courted the media. But even if he did would that legitimise journalists ringing up his elderly relatives pretending to be a council official doing a survey? Or, in the case of Hugh Grant, besieging the house and terrifying the family of the mother of his child? Of course not.
|Gerry and Kate McCann. Pic from The Guardian.|
|Mary Ellen Field. Pic from The Guardian.|
Then there was the Kafkaesque story of Mary-Ellen Field, of the sort that makes fiction writers want to give up because nothing they could write could hope to match its simple horror. She was an assistant to the model Elle Macpherson. Stories about her which could only have come from private phone calls and messages started to appear in the tabloids. Of course we now know their phones were hacked. But Macpherson suspected (and the the one recurring theme of many of the people who have so far spoken is paranoia - the horrible, gnawing fear that the people you love and trust are betraying you to the press) that the stories were being fed to the press by Field. She blamed this on the fact that Field was an alcoholic. Except she wasn't an alcoholic at all. Macpherson staged an 'intervention' and told Field to go to a clinic in the US to treat her non-existent addiction. Fearful of losing her job, and persuaded it was some kind of health spa, Field went, only for it to turn out it was the kind of brutal place where real addicts are stripped of their ego in order to face their problems. It took ten days for the staff to realise Field wasn't an addict. She returned home but Macpherson sacked her anyway.
Yesterday, JK Rowling took the stand. In a sense, hers was the creepiest evidence of all because it detailed the efforts made by photographers - yet another heartening development this week was how focus has been brought on the aggressive and brutal behaviour by those wielding cameras as well as pens - to take pictures of her children, including some of one of her daughters in a swimsuit on a beach on holiday. Another journalist managed to slip a note into her five-year-old's schoolbag. I don't care how famous you may be, or what you're famous for, your children didn't ask to be in the public eye and the desire to photograph and use them to sell a newspaper or magazine is revolting. Rowling left no one in doubt about her anger that because of her fame, her children were fair game.
For those of us who have maintained for a long time that the British tabloid and mid-market press has been mired in degeneracy the inquiry so has been ample vindication, and there are many, many more revelations to come. However, there is a But....and this is the only thing I'm uneasy about. Yes, everyone is repulsed at some of the behaviour outlined in the inquiry. Yes, Something Needs To Be Done. But it is the insatiable desire of the public to know these things - their rumours that the McCanns killed their own child, or desire to know what JK Rowling's kids look like, or who's the mother of Hugh Grant's child, or the state of Elle Macpherson's marriage - that encouraged the jackals of the press to act so abominably. Sadly I doubt any Sun or Daily Mail readers will be brought before Leveson to account for why they buy this crap. Actually, I'd quite like to see that...
Leveson: Why do you buy this crap?
Sun Reader: Er, the sports section is good.
Leveson: Nothing to do with the sordid gossip and naked breasts then? (Turns to next witness) And you, middle-class mother of three from the home counties, why do you buy this crap?
Daily Mail reader: Er, the health and beauty section offers some good tips. My husbands says the sports sections good, too.
Leveson: Nothing to do with sniggering about how fat Charlotte Church's thighs have got, or how falling house prices will give you cancer then?
The fact is we can change our media culture. The Press Complaints Commission can be scrapped and replaced with an independent body with the ability to demand prominent apologies and fine punitively. It can be made law that journalists have to give the subjects the right to comment on stories about them before they go to print. It can be made easier to obtain an injunction preventing a story being printed rather than more difficult. Regulation can be brought in forcing newspapers to use only pictures taking by licensed paparazzi (who lose that licence if they break some form of code). Small courts can be set up to allow those maltreated by the press to seek and obtain damages or redress without having to spend thousands of pounds. Then, hopefully, an improved press will create an improved culture, and being served less prurient tittle-tattle will give people less of an appetite for it.
Oh yeah, and pigs might fly.
Or rather, the pigs will end up setting websites where people will be able to look at all the flabby thighs and sordid gossip they want.
Which leads to the next question. Will Leveson tackle the Internet? Where proven lies and distortions, forbidden pictures all have a life long after the newspaper apology has been printed or the offending photograph withdrawn.
Dan - Friday