The solicitor representing hacking victims attacked Britain’s tabloid press today as he pledged to unmask the “tawdry journalistic trade” at the third hearing of the Leveson Inquiry.
David Sherborne, who is representing 51 core participant victims, gave a powerful and emotional account of how murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked by the News of the World. He called the act one of “cruelty and insensitivity” and said that Dowler’s parents will testify of the euphoria they felt when the deletion of their daughter’s messages meant they thought she was alive.
Sherborne questioned News International’s earlier claims that hacking was limited to one rogue reporter, adding that there was a cover-up at the newspaper over the extent of the practice, and that there was a concerted effort after the event to ”conceal the ugly truth from surfacing.”
He said the paper’s former glory has been so “fatally befouled by its cultural dependency on the dark arts”, giving journalism a bad name.
But phone hacking was, Sherbone said, “just one symptom” of a disease afflicting Britain’s tabloid press. He called the red-tops’ treatment of the parents of Madeleine McCann, he little girl who went missing in Portugal in 2007, “a national scandal”. He noted that Kate McCann’s diary that was given to Portuguese police was published by the News of the World and left her feeling, in her husband’s words “mentally raped”.
He also attacked the reporting of the arrest of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered Bristol woman Joanna Yeates who was later released without charge and cleared of any involvment of any involvement in her death. Reading out a range of damning headlines referencing Jefferies, Sherborne accused the press of a “frenzied campaign to blacken his [Jefferies'] character, a frightening combination of smear, innuendo and complete fiction”,
Sherborne said such stories were printed to “make money, not solve crimes”, and that none of them had a public interest defence. Earlier this year, both the Daily Mirror and the Sun were fined for contempt of court for articles published about a suspect arrested on suspicion of Yeates’ murder.
The Dowler family, Gerry McCann and Jefferies will all give evidence to the Inquiry next week.
Sherborne also made the case for respect to individual privacy, saying it was “as much a mark of a tolerant and mature society as a free and forceful press.” He condemned tabloid culture of kiss-and-tell-stories, citing reporters’ invasions into the lives of JK Rowling, Charlotte Church, Max Mosley, Sheryl Gascoigne and Hugh Grant, all of whom will be giving evidence in the coming weeks.
In a recent development, Sherborne added that the mother of Hugh Grant’s child had received abusive phone calls because the actor had criticised the press. She was allegedly told to “tell Hugh Grant to shut the fuck up”. Sherborne said that last Friday he had to seek an emergency injunction on behalf of a woman who just had the actor’s baby, the real reason for which being the threats she had received.
Sherborne said he was calling for “real change.”
Earlier in the day, the National Union of Journalists’ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet painted a stark picture of journalistic life in the UK, with an omnipotent editor, a slew of relentless pressures, and “brutal” consequences for reporters who did not deliver stories. She said a culture of fear among journalists inhibited them defending fundamental and ethical principles, and that speaking out publicly was “simply not an option” for fear of losing their jobs.
Referring to one of the Inquiry’s key questions raised by Lord Justice Leveson earlier this week, Stanistreet argued that the protection of journalists by way of a trade union could help “guard the guardians” and promote ethical awareness.
Following her, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger made the case for a stronger Press Complaints Commission that must have the power to intervene, investigate meaningfully and impose significant sanctions. Unimpressed by how the PCC handled phone hacking, Rusbridger argued in favour of a press standards and mediation commission, a “one-stop shop” that is responsive, quick and cheap. He added that the industry needed to establish a public interest defence that could be agreed upon and argued for.
Leveson agreed on the value of a “mechanism being set up that benefits all”, but questioned how to persuade those who do not subscribe to the PCC that it is a sensible approach.
Sherborne, however, vowed that his victims’ evidence will show “how hopelessly inadequate this self-regulatory code is as a means of curbing the excesses of the press.”
While conceding he, his clients and Rusbridger may agree on strengthening the PCC, Sherborne also quoted a client who claimed that leaving the PCC in the hands of newspapers would be tantamount to “handing a police station over to the mafia.”
The Inquiry will continue with evidence from victims on 21 November.
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