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