Friday, November 25, 2011

...and the bestselling author will kick their arse

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.
But the most powerful evidence didn't come from actors and actresses. It came from those placed unexpectedly in the crushing grip of the media. Like the quiet dignity of the McCanns, whose daughter Madeleine was abducted while the family were on holiday in Portugal in 2007. In two hours of evidence they gave a litany of offences which they had suffered at the hands of the press, not least the endless innuendo about their role in Maddy's disappearance. Kate McCann kept a private diary of the period following her daughter's abduction, in which she recorded her most secret thoughts and fears. It was seized by the the Portuguese police and, lo and behold, turned up in the News of the World. Even more disgusting was the revelation that, after the couple had agreed to give an interview to a magazine, the editor of the NOTW rang to berate them for not speaking to his newspaper, when, apparently, they had done so much to help them find their daughter. Browbeaten, and scared of any backlash - newspapers operate under an almost medieval system of revenge, whereby those that cross them become their next victims - the McCanns relented and gave the NOTW they interview they didn't deserve.

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


  1. Cheers? Seems to me "tears" would be more appropriate.

    Fifty years ago, in his now oft quoted farewell address to the US, President Eisenhower said, "...we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted."

    Undoubtedly, if warning the world today of what stands among the greatest threats to free societies, at the very top of Eisenhower's list would be the profit-driven, 24/7 in-your-face media described in your piece.

  2. We hear endlessly about freedom of the press, but much less about responsibility of the press, and now here we are with entire countries in free fall and the self-appointed guardians of liberty are sidestepping any possibly bruising encounter with the powers-that-be and concentrating on slipping notes into the backpacks of five-year-olds and turning the tragedy of murder into a fifth-rate penny dreadful.

    Time was, I thought the freedom of the press should be, essentially, infinite. Now, much of the time, the media simply disgust me.

  3. Freedom on the press was not intended to mean mean freedom from responsibility or freedom from the use of common sense. FDR was elected to the office of president four times and it was only 0.1% of the electorate who knew he couldn't walk. Whatever subsequent generations think about his politics, no one has ever attempted to argue that there was another man of the day who could have led the country through World War II. The press on both sides of the political spectrum realized that the people had to believe in the ability of their leader to carry out the duties of the office.

    The problem with the easy accessibility to media of all kinds is it allows people to wallow in the misfortunes of others, a tangent of the Puritan ethic that teaches that bad things happen to people who deserve it. A corollary to this is that rich and famous people should have to deal with an element of the misery of suffered by regular folk.

    People who read Murdoch's papers and watch Fox News know that the main stream media lie to protect the wealthy and powerful. If anyone wants the truth on which to base judgements than they must get Rush Limbaugh to tell them what they should do. Limbaugh is, as my mother would say, a limb of the devil. Millions of people tune in each day to his radio program to learn what they are supposed to think from a man who wouldn't have been noticed for his intellect or his opinion until he turned into a hate monger.

    Someone, congratulated listeners on being the best and the brightest because they were smart enough to listen to her/his program. The best and the brightest weren't going to examine ideas too closely because if they disagreed they would join the stupid and the clueless, the 99%.

    Selfishness seems to be the motive that drives so many people in the twenty-first century. People aren't congratulated on their good fortune or their success. Instead they are fodder for the newspapers and media outlets, even those not controlled by Rupert Murdoch. That all reflect a second-grade reading level returns the topic to anti-intellectualism. One of the main reasons President Obama is so hated is his intelligence. Imagine a country that wants a stupid president. Didn't we learn from experience when we elected a man who declared war before giving intelligence reports a careful reading?

  4. Jeff, I suppose my hope is that this inquiry might help stem that threat. It would be great if the result is a regulatory framework that allows a free responsible press to thrive but punishes those who take liberties with that freedom, and becomes a system the rest of the world might see fit to adopt, should their press be as culpable of the sort of behaviour which has become endemic throughout the British press. A pipedream probably. Just like hoping that reading of all these abuses might take away the scales from the eyes of those who buy these tawdry rags.

    Me too Tim. I remember arriving in London as a young hack, excited, eager, full of idealism about the power of the press as a force for good, only to swiftly realise it was being almost exclusively used as a force of destructive bad. Now, at the very least, some absolute scumbags are getting their comeuppance. Sadly there are probably whole legions of scumbags to take their place.

  5. Beth, I got an email with your response but it hasn't showed here. Odd. But it was as eloquent and beady-eyed as ever and I couldn't disagree with a word of it.

  6. I posted it to the blog inbox won't open although I have been demonstrating the signs of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome. In some strange way, the email worked when it wasn't supposed to.

    I am glad that you thought it was eloquent and we agree.

  7. I think a fundamental problem with society at the moment - beyond just the media - is that so few people believe or understand that the flip side of freedom is responsibility in both personal and public settings. And often, even when they do, their behaviour doesn't reflect it. I remember reading a book entitled Freedom and Responsibiity when I was at university - it had a huge impact on me. Unfortunately the book is in the States and I can't remember the author.