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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage