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
Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?