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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.