Seediness of British tabloid press laid bare
FOR SOME watching the Leveson Inquiry yesterday in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the memory they will take away was one of the utter seediness of British tabloid press intrusion into private lives.
The impact of such intrusion is undeniable. Actor Sienna Miller, for example, distressed that private information kept appearing mostly in the Sunday red-tops, once gathered family and friends together to accuse them – wrongly, as it happened – of leaking stories, as one had come out which only they had known of.
“Looking back, it makes me extremely angry that I was forced into being so suspicious of people that I love and care for, and that I had to suffer such feelings of betrayal, especially by those who had done nothing wrong,” she said in her written statement.
Miller, one of the News of the World’searliest phone-hacking victims, became the first to be compensated by News International as it sought to dampen the fires of the phone-hacking crisis before the Milly Dowler allegations made control no longer possible.
The suffering of Ms Dowler’s parents and of Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal in 2007, was “far more serious” than her own, she acknowledged.
But she went on: “The effect it had in my life was really damaging for me and for friends. It made it very difficult to leave my house. I felt constantly very scared and intensely paranoid,” she said, adding later, “It’s horrible that I accused my family and friends.”
Frequently followed by freelance photographers working for agencies, Miller said on one occasion they had raced through a zebra-crossing, where a pregnant woman pushing a pram was walking, in their zeal to keep her in their sights.
Top privacy and libel lawyer Mark Thompson agreed: “It is truly frightening to see a news mob in pursuit. The pursuits are dangerous. I’ve recommended that clients film it. I’ve seen them, and they are frightening,” he told the inquiry.
When her turn came, JK Rowling, rich beyond measure due to her Harry Potterbooks, sighed repeatedly as she detailed the invasion of privacy she suffered since the success of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stonein 1997.
The casualness of much of what went on struck Judge Leveson, who arched his eyebrows as Rowling detailed how a message for her from a tabloid journalist was put into her daughter’s schoolbag, which she later found.
Forced to quit her first home because so many tabloid reporters were camped outside her door, Rowling detailed occasion after occasion when paparazzi photographed her eldest daughter and her later two children after she married.
Offering a trivial but nevertheless illuminating vignette, Rowling said she has worn a swimsuit on a beach on only two occasions since she became a publishing sensation. Both times, photographs were taken and published.
The second time it happened, she felt like “a fool”, she said: “I forgot myself for a few moments. To call a spade a spade, I am a writer. I do not think that it is of any relevance, or of any public interest, to know what I look like in a swimsuit.”
In 2007, the Scottish Sunhad approached her eldest daughter’s headmaster, claiming the girl had upset classmates by saying Harry Potter died in the last book and characterising her “as some sort of bully”. The allegation was “completely untrue”, Rowling said. Her daughter had deliberately not wanted to be told of the final plot: “The strategy seems to be to surprise people into saying something that they can use,” she told the judge.
With the passing of years Rowling became used, if no more accepting, to periods of peak tabloid interest after another of the Potter books emerged, or after her children’s births, though during one lean period two Scottish tabloid reporters were spotted outside her home.
When approached, the duo replied: “It’s a boring day in the office.” Turning to Judge Leveson, Rowling said: “There wasn’t a pretence that there was a story. It feels threatening to have people watching you.”
Like the others who have appeared before the judge this week, Rowling was asked to offer thoughts on what could be done to improve matters. Pondering for a moment, the author said although she felt the existing Press Complaints Commission was “toothless”, she was “vehemently opposed” to state regulation – adding “I do feel we need a body with teeth”.
Prior notification to concerned parties of stories – Fleet Street’s biggest hate – would help. “Apart from that, I don’t have a magic wand – no Harry Potter joke intended,” she told the judge with a rueful smile.