Leveson's purpose is to give ordinary victims fair redress against the media

Beyond the celebrities and politicians, there are ordinary people who often find themselves in the glare of the media through no fault of their own.

At the heart of the Leveson report is an indictment of some of the past practices of parts of the press when it came to their treatment of ordinary people. Not celebrities or politicians but ordinary people who have, often for reasons entirely out of their control, suddenly found themselves in the media glare. In some of these cases, Leveson writes "there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensation stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected (perhaps in a way that can never be remedied), all the while heedless of the public interest."

The judge cuts through the misleading impression that his inquiry was somehow about protecting the private lives of public figures, as some newspapers have claimed. He has made recommendations on the basis of evidence that a range of titles – not one rogue newspaper – were found to be routinely ransacking the lives of ordinary people with no suggestion of a genuine public interest, or any consideration for the repercussions on people’s lives. He references phone hacking, email hacking, covert surveillance, blagging, deception, harassment, blackmail, combined with a "reckless disregard for accuracy".

In some instances, this was abuse of power against ordinary people on a grand scale. There are, the Metropolitan Police now say, over 2,500 victims of phone hacking. The Dowlers and others who gave evidence to the inquiry were the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There are the victims of the 7/7 bombing – including Professor John Tulloch and Paul Dadge (both praised for their heroism at the time); the bereaved families of victims of Iraq and Afghanistan; the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (murdered in Soham); people in the Witness Protection Programme. All allegedly hacked.

Then there are the hacking stories that have hardly been told. Patricia Bernal, the mother of Clare Bernal who was shot by a stalker in Harvey Nichols in 2005. Her phone was reportedly hacked the same day her daughter was shot. Jane Winter (director of British Irish Rights Watch) whose emails, which included names of Northern Irish people whose exposure could put their lives in danger. Shaun Russell, whose wife and daughter were murdered in 1996. Christopher Shipman, son of serial killer Dr Harold Shipman. Tom Rowland, freelance crime reporter. Joan Smith, journalist and free speech campaigner. All allegedly hacked.

Neither was this simply about hacking. There was also a thriving illegal trade in other personal information, as revealed in two 2006 reports by the Information Commissioner’s Office. These reports, which identified national newspapers as some of the biggest players in this trade, also made very clear that this was not just about celebrities or public figures. The private investigator employed by the newspapers was asked to go for anyone even connected to a story:

A few of the individuals caught up in the detective’s sights either had no obvious newsworthiness or had simply strayed by chance into the limelight, such as the self employed painter and decorator who had once worked for a lottery winner and simply parked his van outside the winner’s house. This group included a greengrocer, a hearing-aid technician, and a medical practitioner subsequently door-stepped by a Sunday newspaper in the mistaken belief that he had inherited a large sum of money from a former patient. (from What Price Privacy, p.17).

The ICO has still not released the details of individual cases from the reports, but some of the names have been published. We know for example, that those people targeted included the families of Aimie Adam and Matthew Birnie, children shot at Dunblane; the families of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, murdered at Soham; Frances Lawrence, widow of Philip Lawrence, the headmaster stabbed outside his school; and Pam Warren, survivor of 1999 Paddington rail crash.

Those who dismissed the ICO reports as historic are reminded in the Leveson report of some of the victims of press abuse since then. Abigail Witchalls was stabbed for no reason in April 2005 while walking with her 18-month-old child. She was then harassed by the press while in hospital and highly personal information discovered and published without permission (including the news – which was not public – that she was five weeks pregnant). Robert Murat, who tried to help the police and press during the Madeleine McCann case in 2007 and was grossly defamed as result. Parameswaran Subramanyam eventually gained apologies and damages from the Daily Mail and the Sun in 2010 after both papers falsely accused the Tamil protestor of breaking his hunger strike in Parliament Square to eat burgers. Before winning his case he was ostracised by the Tamil community and contemplated suicide. Rebecca Leighton was wrongly alleged to be the "saline serial killer" by a number of papers, lost her job in nursing and was virtually unable to leave her home. In 2010 Christopher Jefferies endured trial by media for a murder he did not commit. In 2012, while the Leveson Inquiry was going on, the Bowles family, whose 11-year-old son was killed in a bus crash in Switzerland, were intruded upon and harassed, despite appeals to the press for privacy. This, the report makes clear, was not historic.

There are many other cases Leveson did not have space, even in his 2,000 page report, to mention. Sylvia Henry, a social worker, was wrongly accused of being negligent in the Baby P case, and, as a consequence, was banned from carrying out child protection work. Elaine Chase, a paediatric community nurse, was falsely accused by the Sun (on the front page and inside) of hastening the deaths of 18 terminally ill children by over-administering morphine.

These and lots of other ordinary people have variously been wrongly accused, misprepresented, hacked, harassed, monstered. Newspapers have, with notable exceptions, failed to report on many of the ordinary victims of press abuse, and have left it to Lord Justice Leveson.

The judge has, in a measured and proportionate way, sought to make sure these people had some access to fair redress. When the Prime Minister enters cross-party talks on the Leveson report, before he leaps to any more conclusions, he should dwell on the reasons why this inquiry happened in the first place.

Martin Moore is the Director of the Media Standards Trust

The Leveson report. Photograph: Getty Images
ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
Show Hide image

How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times