What can the Leveson Inquiry do about the paparazzi?

While the rest of the press practises its "contrite face", the paps are unabashed.

How low can the paparazzi go? The lower the better, in the case of the "upskirt" shot beloved of the bottom reaches of the tabloid press. There's an incredible scene in a Channel 4 documentary about the Sunday Sport in which the paper hires a dwarf photographer for exactly this purpose, and he still had to lie on the floor to get the required amount of groin in the frame. (At his job interview, the tact and sensitivity you'd expect from a paper that ran the headline "Rose West ate my guinea pig" was on full display. "Can we call you Phil the Mighty Midget?" asked one of the journalists. "I'm not a midget," Phil replied, stonily. He was eventually named the "Dynamo Dwarf".)

On Fleet Street, the "paps" have long been regarded as the wildest tribe of all - hunting as a pack, spending weeks camped outside celebrities' houses, or employing ever more unwieldy lenses to capture the unwary in an unflattering bikini. A hand-held 300mm camera can provide decent pictures at more than 100 metres, but if you've got a bigger lens, a teleconverter, a tripod and a bit of patience, you can record the special moment an American reality TV star pulls her knickers out of her bum crack from more than a quarter of a kilometre away.

Back to pap

Even as the rest of Fleet Street has been sobering up and practising its "contrite face", the role of the paparazzi has been ignored. It's as if, having had our fit of guilt in the wake of Diana's death, we've used up our quota of outrage. But the paps are still using many of the tactics that troubled us then. There's a photo of the day of Amy Winehouse's funeral, with a knot of photographers wobbling on stepladders, the better to get a shot over the wall of Golders Green Crematorium.

In his evidence to the Leveson inquiry into press standards on 21 November, Hugh Grant has written of the experience of Tinglan Hong, the mother of his baby. He says that photographers "besieged" her house, "ringing repeatedly at her door". As he said: "I asked them if there was anything I could do or say to make them leave a new and frightened young mother in peace. They said: 'show us the baby'. I refused."

After trying the Press Complaints Commission - it circulated a warning to editors, which apparently deterred some, but not all, of the photographers - Grant successfully applied for an injunction against them.

The NS's legal correspondent, David Allen Green, speculated that while the PCC ruling might have made newspaper editors call off the hunt, it was unlikely to have the same effect on photo agencies and freelance paparazzi: "the intrusions - and risks - are effectively outsourced on a commercial basis by the tabloids".

It is worth noting that the impetus for the Leveson inquiry - phone-hacking at the News of the World - was also caused by a paper "outsourcing" legally and ethically dubious tactics, in this case to private investigators. Any press reform must tackle not just the sitting targets of Fleet Street, but the shifting, quicksilver world of those they pay to do their dirty work for them.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article