The Leveson Inquiry…Witnesses Week 1

By general consent, the first week of hearing witnesses to the Leveson Inquiry into (British) Media Standards has been a very bad week to be a journalist or tabloidist. It must have been very uncomfortable listening for them. Monday to Thursday…four days of evidence …heaped misery on the so called profession.

There were maybe an average of three witnesses daily. And a mix of celebrity witnesses and “ordinary civilians” whose lives had been entirely free of publicity until a set of circumstances beyond their control brought them to the attention of the British Press.

Fittingly the first to give evidence…unusually sitting beside each other in the witness box…Bob & Sally Dowler. It was the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone which led to the public furore which led Rupert Murdoch to close down The News of the World and the Government to set up the Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards.

Movingly (but in control) the Dowlers told their tale of how their abducted daughter’s phone had been hacked, messages deleted and giving them false hope that their daughter was still alive when in fact she was already murdered. It was impossible not to be fully behind them.

By contrast, the other main witness on the first day,actor Hugh Grant was less convincing. He is of course a celebrity, although as he puts it the contractual obligation (to producers) and moral obligation (to the cast and crew) to promote a movie does not mean that his “private life” should be public. His “ten myths of tabloid journalism” was I think convincing but oddly it was Grant’s professionalism which was the weakest part of his evidence. Effectively he was playing the same self effacing character he has played in “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually”. Hugh Grant seemed to be ACTING his replies to the Inquiry Barrister but the Dowlers were RE-ACTING. Every raising of an eyebrow or considered pause, hand gesture or emphasis seemed planned seemed like a performance. He even spoke about talking to the Inquiry Barrister “backstage” (sic). Now of course this does not mean that his evidence was any way tainted …merely that it was impossible to forget that Hugh Grant is an actor. Perhaps the weakest part of his evidence was when he went off-script and ad-libbed a new statement that The Daily Mail had recently been involved in hacking his phone in an attempt to gain information about the recent birth of his child and identity of the mother. Accusations that the newspaper strenuously deny.

James & Margaret Watson, ordinary folks from Scotland spoke of the day that their daughter was murdered and how some years later, a tabloid ran a story about murder victims which contained unflattering references to their deceased daughter. Their son committed suicide, holding the offending article.

Actor, comedian and writer, Steve Coogan took to the witness box to draw a distinction between his public and private life. He rarely appears on television as himself (on chat shows etc). His womanising, drinking and drug  use have been tabloid staples and his refusal to play the tabloid game has made him “fair game” for tabloidists. At times he protested just a little too much. But made two interesting points. The suggestion in a tabloid paper that he had almost caused the death by overdose of actor-friend Owen Wilson was a genuine point of concern. Likewise the fact that he had received two phone calls from the offices of The News of the World. One he had been pre-warned by a named friendly journalist, would involve an ex-girlfriend trying to incriminate him with lurid details of an affair. And he was able to stonewall. And no story was published. Two years later, he got a phone call from the newspaper telling him that they were in possession of information about his sex life. And he was invited to effectively plea bargain. Plead guilty to the less embarrassing and the newspaper would not publish all they knew. Coogan foolishly agreed. And not surprisingly it was a sting. Andy Coulson, then editor, phoned him back to say thar the paper would run the entire piece and that they had recorded the conversation. Coulson later became Press Secretary to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Gary Flitcroft was a reasonably talent Premiership footballer with Blackburn Rovers in 2002. Married, he had an affair with a woman, who was probably blonde. He broke off the relationship. And the young lady requested that he pay her £3,000 for a “boob job”. Flitcroft refused. And the story was sold to the tabloids with the familiar “Premiership Footballer Is Love Cheat” headline. Embarrassing for Flitcroft certainly but a gift to supporters of other football teams. Flitcrofts father, already suffering depression, stopped watching his son play football and he became even more depressed and withdrawn. Gary Flitcroft blames the Media for his fathers suicide.

Kate and Gerry McCann gave evidence together. Both medical doctors, they were thrown into the headlines when their 4 year old daughter Madeline went missing….abducted…..from a family vacation in Portugal in  May 2007. “Maddy” is now 8 years old and still missing.

The Press descended on Portugal. The McCanns are a photogenic, middle class, youngish, articulate couple and the Press were supportive. Initially. But the story was difficult for the Press. There was no happy ending. Or indeed no tragic ending. A third narrative emerged. The McCanns had been…….it was suggested…at best callous that they left three children under five, sleeping in a villa while they went to a restaurant. They were being scrutinised by the Press for clues as to their “guilt”. The innuendo was that they were “involved”. I think the British Public were also involved in this. They were “too dignified”, just “too calm”. And the Portuguese Police were less than helpful, designating them as “suspects/persons of interest” which meant the McCanns could not say too much publicly.

As the weeks, months and now sadly years have rolled by……..the Press have been more overtly critical or unhelpful. Critically any story “exclusively revealing that Maddy is dead” is not only hurtful but creates an atmosphere where people effectively stop believing she is alive and stop looking. Likewise lurid headlines saying that the McCanns sold their child into white slavery are just lies and libellous and the McCanns have sued successfully.

The probem with the Media is that it…….mediates. An event (Maddy’s abduction) happens and all information we know is filtered thru this thing we call the Media. Of course, I like just about everyone else has played the sleuthing game and the psycho babble game of interpreting Kate and Gerry McCann in interviews. And so Wednesdays evidence was a kind of epiphany for many viewers. Without Media between the parents of an abducted child and me……it was evident to me that this couple was speaking the truth and that the evidence against the Press was overwhelming.

Sienna Miller, actress, of whom I had barely heard had been a tabloid target from her days as Jude Law’s girlfriend. Perhaps more convincing than Grant or Coogan, she spoke movingly of being chased down dark London side streets by “ten big men” with cameras. In another context, ten men chasing a frightened vulnerable woman is sinister and illegal. The cameras made it legal. And she spoke of confidential information finding its way into newspapers and chastised herself for blaming family and friends that they had betrayed her to the Media. The truth was that her phone had been hacked.

Max Mosley is a millionaire, the 70 years old son of Oswald Mosley, who was Leader of the British Fascist Movement in the 1930s. Max Mosley was for many years the most important figure in the governance of Formula One Motor Racing. Some years ago, The News of the World reported, with photographs Max Mosley’s interest in sado- masocistic sex with prostitutes. He sued the newspaper for breach of his privacy and received record damages (£60,000), which of course did not even cover his costs. As Mosley admits he is an obsessive since the incident and is involved in litigation in twenty countries. He can, he says, afford it and he is clearly a man on a mission. His sexuality is legal, adult and consensual……and while it may not be in everyone’s taste, he effectively made the point that it is improper to judge his tastes. It is simply nobodys business. But perhaps the most serious and damaging allegation in The News of the World story was that Mosley was taking part in a “Nazi-themed sado-masochistic orgy”. This was not the case and Mosley himself…despite youthful indiscretions has always sought to distance himself from his late fathers politics.

But a recurring theme is that the tabloid excesses can be lethal. Max Mosley’s son was a drug addict who died from an overdose after the publication of the lurid details of his fathers sex life. Mosley himself stopped short of saying it was a suicide but rather indicated that his son had returned to drug use and made a fatal error.

There is some evidence to suggest that tabloids regard libel damages and legal costs as an occupational hazard, an irritation even. The hard-nosed business calculation is that the money from increased sales should be more than legal costs and damages paid.

J K Rowling, creator of Harry Potter has had a running battle with the Media. She has taken over fifty seperate actions against the Press and her main concern is the privacy of her children. Fighting the Media is a costly, time consuming and exhausting business. In her evidence she spoke of the care she has taken to keep photographs of her children and of her homes out of newspapers. But the methods used by the Media seem a downright abuse of power…Ms Rowling claiming that she opened her 5 year old childs schoolbag one evening to find a letter from a journalist.

To some extent all of the “celebrity” witnesses have had to answer the charge that they have entered into a Faustian Pact with the Press. That the price of Fame and Wealth is a deal with the Media Devil. To a greater or lesser extent, all have managed to deal with this allegation successfully.

Yet to undermine this, within hours of J K Rowling completing her evidence that she feared for her childrens security when pictures of her children and home are published……Jordan (aka Katy Price) a model and “reality TV star” whose tawdry lifestyle is an almost daily feature in tabloids…… was quoted as saying she also fears her children might be “snatched”. Hmmm …….possibly by social workers.

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