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.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution