Britain’s world-famous tabloid press, so used to dishing out punishment to erring celebrities, politicians, and sports personalities, is getting a taste of its own medicine at the moment, for the first time anyone can remember.
Thanks to the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s press empire, victims of harassment and intrusion have been given a public platform to recount their miserable experiences, and they are using it.
Whether it be rich and famous victims such as J. K. Rowling and Hugh Grant or tragic families who attracted press attention because of some accidental brush with fame, the stories they are telling at the public inquiry into press standards have been on television night and day. The message going out to the British public is that the gossip and tittle-tattle they are used to reading every morning often comes at an appalling price.
Rowling told of opening her 5-year-old daughter’s school bag one day to find that a reporter had somehow slipped in a letter addressed to her. She felt, she said, “a sense of invasion.” Actress Sienna Miller described paparazzi spitting at her to provoke a reaction they could photograph. Grant alleged that the mother of his child was stalked by reporters while pregnant and received threatening, anonymous phone calls.
In other sessions the mother of a missing schoolgirl told of her joy at finding that voicemails on her daughter’s phone had just been deleted. “She’s alive!” cried Sally Dowler, but it was a false hope: Milly Dowler was already dead, and the voicemail had been remotely deleted by a News of the World reporter curious to see what might happen.
And a Scottish couple, Margaret and James Watson, alleged that inaccurate reporting of their daughter’s murder in 1991 contributed to the suicide of their son a year later. The boy was found dead with copies of the news reports in his hand.
It all brings vividly to life a remark once made by a News of the World executive unaware that he was being recorded: “That is what we do ... We go out and destroy other people’s lives.”
These allegations don’t stop with Murdoch’s big-selling Sunday tabloid, which he was forced to close last July. Most of the popular press is in the dock, and the question being asked is the obvious one: what should be done about national newspapers capable of such things?
The papers themselves generally report the testimony at Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s inquiry in grudging fashion while maintaining a sullen silence about the implications. Elsewhere in their pages, meanwhile, the scandal count is clearly down. Matthew Engel, a historian of the popular press, wrote in the Financial Times that the Sunday papers "have become risk-averse, frightened to put themselves in the Leveson firing line." Like one of those beleaguered families with the press pack on their doorstep, they just want it all to go away.
Will it? Professional opinion is divided. Dominic Lawson, former editor of the relatively upmarket Sunday Telegraph, thinks it will. “It is improbable that the public’s hunger for intrusive personal knowledge will diminish,” he wrote in The Sunday Times. “If anything, privacy seems an outmoded concept to the Facebook-addicted generation.”
Phil Hilton, editor of a downmarket women’s magazine, Stylist, wrote: “I’m not immune to the odd fascination we all have with the famous, but Leveson has exposed the ugliness of our national addiction, and, I suspect, ended an era.”
Engel, the historian, thought it wouldn’t make much difference either way: the worst offenders were Sunday papers, and their market was already disappearing even faster than the daily one.
But the industry is not giving up easily, and a race is on to come up with some kind of defensible system to police standards and ethics before Leveson imposes something they do not like. The Press Complaints Commission, a body set up a generation ago ostensibly to provide “self-regulation” of the press, but now widely regarded as toothless and ineffective, is having a sudden face-lift.
Its new chair, former cabinet minister Lord David Hunt, has admitted that it was never really a regulator at all and wrote in The Times: “What is needed is a new structure that will include a body with teeth, a body with credibility.” This body, independent of government, would police press behavior in a robust fashion, he said.
And the most powerful editor in Fleet Street, Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, sent a similar message, proposing the appointment of an independent ombudsman for the press who could investigate serious wrongdoing and impose fines.
Neither Dacre nor the PCC would have contemplated such change six months ago, so something is certain to shift here, and life will become at least a little more difficult for the privacy-intrusion industry.
None of that, in turn, is good news for Rupert and James Murdoch. The News Corp. business was built on the profits of the News of the World and The Sun, and the company is widely blamed for the decline in press standards that led to hacking and other abuses.
The News of the World has gone, and on a Saturday, the giant, modern presses that once produced 4 million or 5 million copies stand inefficiently idle. The Sun’s business model is threatened by the current scandals, and The Times and The Sunday Times—the other big Murdoch titles—do not, between them, generate profits.
More than once in his recent public grillings in London, James Murdoch has mentioned that the News International papers in Britain are a tiny share of News Corp.’s global business. The question is being asked: are they worth all the trouble?