It's not all about Sienna

The missing witnesses at the Leveson inquiry are you and me.

Are tabloid readers just as responsible for the bad behaviour of the press as the hacks and paps? It's a question I've been asking myself over and over while the Leveson inquiry (or to give it its full name, the "Leveson inquiry into the culture and practices and ethics of the press") has been going on.

In a rather poignant reflection of the celebrity culture that fuelled this miserable business in the first place, the appearances of "big names" at Leveson have drawn bigger headlines and longer articles than those of more ordinary, more boring, less photogenic folk. Today's appearance by Sienna Miller will doubtless give the chance for trouser-rubbing picture editors to pore over her features once again. And so it was the case yesterday when Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing child Madeleine, came to give evidence.

The couple spoke of how their privacy was invaded, how their shocked world was intruded upon by photographers and reporters alike, how private diaries were printed without their permission, and how they had to read rumours from police lines of inquiry presented as if they were legitimate versions of the truth. Anyone who has the merest sliver of empathy can only recoil in horror at how the parents of a missing child could feel under those circumstances.

But the hacks and paps didn't descend on Praia de Luz because they were out to get Kate and Gerry -- their privacy was just collateral damage. What they really wanted to do was flog papers -- and this was a story that had produced a reading frenzy, even bumping the Daily Express's traditional sales banker of Diana off the front page. Is it the fault of a profit-making enterprise to want to maximise sales at a time of decline? Or should those who hungrily sucked up the photos and stories of the McCanns bear some responsibility, too?

Nobody knows what sells papers; it's still a bit of a mystery even as the newspaper industry heads towards terminal decline. We can all guess and speculate. You can ask readers, but you will always have to bear in mind that people like to sound more ethical than they really are - who's going to fess up to feasting on trashy celebrity sleaze and intrusion into famous people's private lives, even in an anonymous survey?

But the heat and light generated by certain subjects and certain stories is easier to see now, thanks to the web, where our interests can be easier to see than what we'd admit to reading in a paper. That's why huge chunks of the Daily Mail's website, for example, are devoted to American minor celebrities you've never even heard of wearing bikinis; that's what guarantees traffic.

And that's why there was such a clamour for McCann stories back when the little girl went missing, and why stories about the mystery continue to be popular today. We want to read them, so the search for new angles continues; in that battle for fresh meat, it's not a massive surprise that some journalists will cross the line to get what they want. They do it because we want them to.

Additionally, it was a case that took place in Portugal, so newspapers were left unrestrained by those annoying obstacles of trying not to prejudice criminal proceedings and could say what they wanted while Robert Murat -arrested because the pack of hacks swarming around Praia de Luz decided he was a bit weird - and the McCanns were treated as suspects. It was a chilling glimpse into what would happen without reporting restrictions, a look into a world where journalists could simply write about ongoing cases without thinking of the consequences.

So while Leveson carries on, hearing from victims of phone hacking and journalistic wrongdoing, there's something missing. The other people responsible for this behaviour are getting away completely free of blame, without being scrutinised or having their actions looked at. The other perpetrators are us -- those who bought the newspapers in the first place. You or I might haughtily contend that we are above such things and we don't buy such garbage, but are we really not part of the problem? Do we really not contribute to a culture in which celebrity is seen as the peak of achievement, in which the lines between public and private are being erased all the time?

It would take a long time for Leveson to hear from the millions of people who bought papers because they wanted to read about Celebrity A's lovelife, or the misery of Family B as they were immersed in grief. But we can't pretend they don't exist. Or that we're not part of the problem.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.