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

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.