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

Getty
Show Hide image

“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.