After Leveson, we must ensure the voices of victims are never drowned out again

No industry should be so unaccountable that it can ride rough shod over people’s lives.

With Leveson’s report on press intrusion about to be published, it’s no surprise that those whose methods and practices were called into question during the inquiry are voicing such large opposition to it. They’ve been vehemently arguing against the possibility of statutory legislation and braying about “press freedom”, but what is really is at stake is not freedom of speech: it’s about making the press accountable for their actions. Obviously, no media barons want restrictions on the unfettered power they currently have: no wonder they’re resisting it. The next few days are going to be a highly charged time indeed.

One might imagine that most of us have been finding this media circle jerk tedious and dull: watching the press discuss its own future is not the most interesting or captivating story. But people are interested what the outcome of Leveson’s report will be: this recent YouGov poll shows that 79 per cent are in favour of an independent press regulator established by law. Why do the British public care about this? It’s because they haven’t forgotten that the victims of press intrusion are just like them: regular members of the British public.

Even if the press focuses on the more high profile members of the campaigning group Hacked Off like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan or Charlotte Church, the majority of the people who are part of the organisation are not celebrities: they are just people who have suffered abuse by the self-regulated hand of the press, and who are now bravely putting their heads above the parapet in order to effect change in the industry.

So when certain elements of the press voice scathing contempt for these people who have suffered trauma, tragedy and loss, sneeringly calling them, like Rupert Murdoch did, “scumbags”, what is being drowned out are real voices of real victims: normal people whose lives have been permanently damaged by being unwillingly dragged into the limelight. Let us not forget that.

My own experience of press intrusion (the Independent on Sunday libelled me; the Sunday Times published an exposé “outing” me as the anonymous author of a sex memoir), doesn't compare to the more serious victims of press abuse and hacking, like the Dowler family, or Chris Jefferies, or Margaret Aspinall, the mother of a Hillsborough victim, but through Hacked Off we’ve joined together in solidarity to ensure the voices of the victims are not silenced by media bullying. We also all agree that we need independent regulation of the industry to make it more accountable and ensure that future victims do not suffer as we have.

Clearly the self-regulatory PCC – which oversaw the phone hacking cases and did nothing about them – is ineffective and needs to be ditched. The Hunt-Black plan being banded about as an “independent” choice is nothing but a smokescreen: what lies behind it is a structure, not dissimilar to the ineffective PCC, which leaves editors and proprietors answerable to no one but themselves, and is not truly independent of the industry.

The response by the newspapers to possible statutory regulation is nonsense almost to the point of hysteria – myths about the end of press freedom combined with government control, political interference, and even likening it to dictatorial regimes are being screamed from all corners. But, as the journalist David Allen Green puts it, “statutory” should not be a bogey word and should be viewed with impartiality:

“Unless the Act of Parliament formally allows for such a role for politicians or departments, a “statutory” regulator can be just as independent (if not more so) as one based on contract or consent.”

People affected by press abuses have suffered enough. Not just their own personal tragedies and traumas, and losses, but then the ordeal of being violated by the media (and relived again in court, their only form of redress – this itself is now threatened by changes to Conditional Fee Agreements, which would make access to justice available to only the very rich). So when the press make emotive pleas about “freedom of speech”, that rings hollow, because no industry should be so unaccountable that it can ride rough shod over people’s lives.

The British public overwhelmingly want a strong press watchdog, backed by law; the victims of press abuse want an independent regulator of the industry that makes the press accountable and offers future victims protection and justice. Let’s hope that the recommendations in Leveson’s report are taken seriously, but – more importantly – are also acted upon.

Jenny Hicks and Margaret Aspinall, members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

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