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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide