Britain's media ethics inquiry: the story so far
LONDON (AP) — J.K. Rowling described how press intrusion made her feel like a hostage, Hugh Grant traded insults with a newspaper editor and a former tabloid reporter insisted that only evildoers had any need of privacy.
The first phase of Britain's media ethics inquiry ended this week after 40 days of dramatic hearings that heard from 184 witnesses — celebrities, journalists, editors, academics and lawyers — and revealed wildly differing perspectives on the murky workings of the tabloid press.
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the inquiry, led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, in response to a scandal that began with illegal eavesdropping by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World. Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid in July after evidence emerged that it had accessed the mobile phone voicemails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in its search for scoops.
The first section of the inquiry looked at the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.
Here's what we've learned so far:
PHONE HACKING WAS JUST ONE FORM OF WRONGDOING — AND THE NEWS OF THE WORLD WASN'T THE ONLY PERPETRATOR
As the inquiry opened, victims' lawyer David Sherborne said it was not just the disgraced News of the World, but "the whole of the press, and in particular the tabloid section of it, which we say stands in the dock."
Illegal eavesdropping was just one of the improper techniques of which papers stood accused. Celebrities — and non-celebrities thrust into the spotlight — described paparazzi stakeouts, late-night pursuits and relentless attention that left them angry and paranoid.
Hugh Grant testified his apartment had been broken into, details of a hospital visit leaked and the mother of his baby daughter hounded by paparazzi. He accused the Mail on Sunday of hacking his phone ("A mendacious smear," countered Paul Dacre, editor of sister paper the Daily Mail).
Singer Charlotte, Church, the subject of intense media interest from childhood, said her mother had attempted suicide partly as a result of a News of the World story about her father's extramarital affair headlined "Church's three in a bed cocaine shock."
Journalism professor and former tabloid editor Roy Greenslade said that even for newspaper veterans, the daily accumulation of evidence had been startling.
"I think all of us who have worked in popular newspapers were not massively surprised but there were, even so, eye-opening moments — harassment of people, pursuit of people and intrusions into their private lives," he said.
As for phone hacking, other newspapers were accused — but without firm proof. Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace said hacking "might well" have been going on at the Mirror in the early 2000s, though CNN celebrity interviewer Piers Morgan said he didn't believe he had ever listened to hacked voicemail messages while he was editor between 1995 and 2004.
But he offered no explanation for how he heard a voicemail message left by former Beatle Paul McCartney for his then-girlfriend, Heather Mills.
JOURNALISTS AND CELEBRITIES HAVE VERY DIFFERENT IDEAS OF PRIVACY
Celebrity witnesses expressed outrage that fame made every aspect of their private lives fair game for the press. Rowling said the tabloids' attitude was: "You're famous, you're asking for it." The press camped on her doorstep, phoned her husband pretending to be tax collectors, even slipped a note into her 5-year-old daughter's schoolbag.
"I felt such a sense of invasion," Rowling said. "(It was) like being under siege and like being a hostage."
Others described a similar sense of violation.
But representatives of the tabloid press saw it differently — as a codependent relationship involving attention-starved celebrities and story-seeking journalists.
The Daily Mail's Dacre said that "a lot of celebrities, celebrity chefs, sportspeople make a lot of money by revealing their lives to the public. I believe newspapers should be given some latitude to look into their lives when they err."
Former News of the World reporter Paul McMullan put it more bluntly: "The only people I think need privacy are people who do bad things," he said. "Privacy is evil."
THE SCANDAL HAS TAMED THE TABLOID PRESS, AT LEAST TEMPORARILY
The inquiry was triggered by widespread revulsion in July when the public learned about the hacking of the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002.
Since then, Britain's rambunctious tabloids have been noticeably more muted, running few of the exposes of celebrity sex-and-drug scandal that were long their trademark. It seems editors are running scared.
Celebrity publicist Max Clifford — who pocketed nearly 1 million pounds ($1.58 million) of Murdoch's money when his own hacking case was settled — told the inquiry that in the last few months "there are several major stories that would have dominated the headlines ... that haven't come out."
THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN, BUT THERE'S LITTLE AGREEMENT ABOUT HOW TO FIX IT
Almost every witness agreed that the current system of newspaper self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission does not work.
The commission can impose penalties and order apologies in response to complaints about stories — but it has no legal powers, membership is voluntary and it is composed mainly of newspaper editors.
Sherborne, the hacking victims' lawyer, said that the current setup was "tantamount to handing the police station over to the mafia," and victims have called for stronger — if often undefined — measures to curb wayward journalists.
But journalists and newspaper editors fear such pressure could lead to some form of state regulation of the media. They would prefer to see a new independent regulator with stronger powers.
Financial Times editor Lionel Barber told the inquiry that the current PCC code "is pretty robust but it needs to be enforced and it needs to be credible."
He stressed, however, that the press must remain independent — "We will make mistakes and reputations may be damaged, but the principle of free expression is really critical."
NEWS CORP. IS SORRY — AND HAS DEEP POCKETS WHEN IT COMES TO COMPENSATING VICTIMS
The phone hacking scandal has rocked Rupert Murdoch's global News Corp. which has made strenuous public efforts to salvage its reputation.
The company has paid damages to settle lawsuits by about 60 people, including many of the inquiry's witnesses. Each settlement came with an apology in court for the damage and distress the illegal activity had caused.
The company has established a standards and ethics committee to root out wrongdoing, set aside a 20 million pound ($32 million) fund to compensate victims and has already paid out several million, including 2 million pounds to the Dowler family.
This week News Corp. revealed that the hacking scandal has cost it $87 million, most of it in legal fees.
And the story is far from over. About 60 more hacking lawsuits are being prepared.
The Leveson Inquiry has many more months of testimony in store. The second phase of hearings, looking at the media's relationship with the police, opens Feb. 27.
The Leveson Inquiry: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless