The two faces of the press on regulation of private investigators

The press defended PIs from regulation, then turned around and asked why they hadn't been regulated.

The revelation that firms from two of this country’s biggest industries may have commissioned corrupt PIs – without facing prosecution – will fuel concerns that corporations potentially involved in the unlawful trade in private information have so far escaped proper investigation

Tom Harper, The Independent, 25th July 2013

There has been a rising volume of consternation in parts of the press about why non-media companies that used private investigators – who have been found to have acted illegally – were not pursued and prosecuted by the authorities.

What none of the reports to date have explored is why many of these cases were not pursued in 2007/08. Instead they have given the impression that the press was unfairly singled out.

The reason why many of these cases were not pursued in 2007/08 was because the press prevented it. It did this by campaigning aggressively and successfully to block the increase of sanctions for this type of crime. Without such an increase it was, the Information Commissioner said, almost impossible to justify the pursuit and prosecution of the culprits, let alone their clients.

To see what happened one has to go back to 2006 and the publication of a report by the Information Commissioner. It was evidence from this report, and other police operations, on which the 2008 SOCA report was based. This is the same SOCA report that has been the focus of so much current attention.

This 2006 report, What Price Privacy?, outlined the scale of the illegal trade in personal information, citing the industrial scale blagging being done on behalf of newspapers, but making clear that the trade was certainly not restricted to the media.

As well as journalists, the report said, illegal information gathering "involved finance companies and local authorities wishing to trace debtors; estranged couples seeking details of their partner’s whereabouts or finances; and criminals intent on fraud or witness or juror intimidation".

The report contained a short section on each these non-media clients, and even specified the amount being spent by some non-media clients:

Documents seized from the tracing agent working for finance houses and local councils revealed that one agent was invoicing for up to £120,000 per month of positive tracing.

The problem, the ICO said, was that even if it pursued and prosecuted the private investigators guilty of gathering and selling this information then "those apprehended and convicted by the courts often face derisory penalties".

These penalties – often only £100 or £150 fines – did not act as a deterrent and did not justify the police, ICO and prosecution time to pursue.

The chief recommendation of the 2006 report was, therefore, that sanctions should be increased so that they would act as a deterrent. At the same time it would make it more justified for the authorities to pursue cases and prosecute the private investigators and their clients.

"The Information Commissioner calls on the Lord Chancellor," What Price Privacy? said, "to bring forward proposals to raise the penalty for persons convicted on indictment of section 55 offences to a maximum two years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both; and for summary convictions, to a maximum six months’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both"

But when the report was published, the media, rather than focus on the private investigators, the insurance companies or other clients, focused almost exclusively on the potential effect of the increase of sanctions on the media.

In the second report the ICO published in 2006 (What Price Privacy Now?) the Information Commissioner remarked on the media’s response and again stressed that, despite the media’s concerns, the problem went much wider than the press:

Some of the press coverage since the report has highlighted the intrusion into the lives of high profile public figures by the media but it should not be forgotten that this trade also affects the lives of people not in the public eye and is very often unrelated to media activity.

The Commissioner’s efforts were in vain as the press continued to focus, for the following 18 months, almost entirely on the implications of the ICO’s recommendations for the press, and began a campaign to prevent the increase of sanctions.

Leveson describes the consequences of the ICO reports and recommendations:

The first was the mobilisation of a political lobbying effort by the press against the campaign [of the ICO for increased sanctions], directed to the heart of government. The second was the hardening of the attitude of the press (now unmistakably represented by the PCC) towards the ICO.

p.1024, Vol.3

Two of leaders of the press campaign, according to the Leveson report, were Murdoch McClellan (then Chief Executive of the Telegraph Group) and Guy Black (also at the Telegraph Group).

In the summer of 2007 the editor of the Daily Mail (Paul Dacre), Murdoch McClellan of the Telegraph and the Les Hinton of News International had dinner with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to persuade him to help them stop the increase in sanction going through.

The campaign stepped up its efforts through early 2008 with some media interests "lobbying the Conservatives heavily in favour of removal" of the amendment to the law to increase the sanction (quote from the Information Commissioner, 25 March 2008).

Leveson was scathing about the objectives of this campaign:

The argument that the prospect of custody would have a differential "chilling" effect on lawful and ethical journalism from the prospect of a financial penalty is one which it is barely respectable for national press organisations to advance at all. Its necessary implication is that the prospect of a criminal conviction can, of itself, be regarded as a tolerable business risk, and a criminal fine a tolerable overhead, in journalism. This says little more than that "unchilled" journalism is an activity which takes calculated risks with deliberate and indefensible criminality. This is an argument for criminal impunity including (as it was put before the Inquiry) by way of a plea for indemnity from the otherwise universal application of criminal penalties; it amounts to special pleading to be placed above the law.

p.1091, Vol.3

Yet the press campaign was successful. Even though the amendments were drafted in section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, they were never commenced. They have still not commenced.

As a consequence, the authority responsible for pursuing cases of blagging and related offences – the ICO, continued to be severely constrained in the action it could take.

Certain news organisations, in other words, effectively prevented the pursuit of organisations that were illegally acquiring personal information in 2007/08 and onwards. These same news organisations are now claiming the failure to pursue these organisations is evidence of an unfair singling out of the press through the Leveson Inquiry.

The Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.