The Leveson Report: Victims of the hunt for a scoop
Lord Justice Leveson reserved some of his harshest criticism for newspapers' 'reckless' pursuit of sensational tales. James Cusick looks at the victims
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Thursday 29 November 2012
“Certain parts of the press ride roughshod over others, both individuals and the public at large, without any justifiable public interest.” That was Lord Justice Leveson’s stinging verdict on the treatment some of the press have meted out to individuals and families that compelled the Government to order a full judicial inquiry.
“Most responsible corporate entities would be appalled that employees were or could be involved in the commission of crime in order to further their business,” Leveson wrote, adding in a damning verdict directed at Rupert Murdoch’s News International: “Not so at the News of the World.”
Looking beyond phone hacking, the report says “there were many other examples of egregious behaviour on the part of the press”.
The judge rejects the idea that the failings were limited to the News of the World. The significant number of stories that failed to meet adequate standards “cannot be ignored”, his report says, adding that this “reflects a culture (or more accurately a sub-culture) within parts of some titles”.
Inside national newspapers, Leveson says there was a “recklessness in prioritising sensational stories” that was “heedless of the public interest”. Due to some journalists’ “determination to get to the story”, some people – even though they were only connected to someone famous – suffered in a “real, and in some cases, devastating” manner, he writes.
Accepting that “errors and inaccuracies” are part of a “fast-moving and healthy press, Leveson says that “when the story is just too big and the public appetite too great”, there has been a “significant and reckless disregard for accuracy” and adds that the risk to the public because of such errors “is obvious”.
Joanna Yeates was the tenant of Mr Jefferies, a retired teacher, when she went missing over Christmas 2010. The landlord, who was taken into custody and questioned by police over three days, had no idea what was happening to his reputation outside. Rules on contempt and prejudice had been ditched by many titles. Leveson says the story acquired its “own close to irresistible momentum and was running out of control” with many newspapers printing “what they could get away with in print”. Although the Daily Mirror and The Sun are singled out for particular criticism in the report, Mr Jefferies is described as “the victim of a very serious injustice perpetrated by a significant section of the press.
One of the inquiry’s first witnesses, the actor indirectly accused the Mail papers of hacking into his phone. The accusation related to an article in the Mail on Sunday describing the cause of his broken relationship with heiress Jemima Khan. A war of words between Mr Grant and the Mail broke out across days of the inquiry involving speculation over the identity of a “plummy voiced executive” and whether details had been taken from Mr Grant’s phone. The editor-in-chief of the Mail titles, Paul Dacre, offered an “aggressive” explanation to the inquiry described as “not justified”. Leveson says in his report this is “a good example of the phenomenon of aggressive defence”.
Gordon and Sarah Brown
In November 2006, The Sun published private medical information about Gordon and Sarah Brown’s four-month-old son. The story revealed he had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The report states there was “no public interest in the story” and accepted that neither parent had “expressly consented to publication”. Rebekah Brooks, in her evidence, had claimed the Browns had been “absolutely committed to making this public”. Leveson says her account “defies belief”. The report states that “the treatment of Mr and Mrs Brown by News International left much to be desired” and says it provides “a fine example of a number of aspects of unsatisfactory or unethical press practices”.
Kate and Gerry McCann
Madeleine McCann was abducted in Portugal in May 2007. The press treatment of her parents, particularly by the Daily Star and Express newspapers, is heavily criticised. Leveson states: “If ever there was an example of a story which ran totally out of control, this is one.” The press appetite for news of Madeleine is described as “insatiable” with the search for the truth “the first principle to be sacrificed”. A number of titles were described as being “guilty of gross libels” with “gross inaccuracy” in reporting criticised as “bluntly outrageous”. The parents became “a news item, a commodity, almost a piece of public property”. And because the McCanns had tried to engage with the media, the press behaved as though “they had waived their right to privacy.”
A coach accident in Switzerland in March this year killed 28 people, among them 22 children. One of those who lost their lives was an 11-year-old from Britain, Sebastian Bowles. Although press and photographers were banned from the centre where parents of the dead were being kept, photographs of the Bowles family appeared in the Daily Mail. Other pictures appeared on The Sun’s website, and The Daily Telegraph published intimate family details that had been lifted from Sebastian’s last blogs. Leveson says the way this story was reported “undeniably raises issues under the Editors’ Code [of the PCC] in relation to … the press’s discretion surrounding the reporting of grief.”
The way the News of the World treated the disappearance of Milly, the daughter of Bob and Sally Dowler, is described by the Leveson Report as defining the “fine line between the need to engage the press to publicise a predicament or cause, and the dangers of press intrusion”. Her mobile phone was “hacked into and tampered with” by the NOTW. However “equal if not greater importance”, the report says, should be given to the “intrusive and insensitive” reporting at a time of “intense personal distress” for the family. While the courts will wrestle with the case next year, the report says: “The fact remains that the NOTW hacked the phone of a dead schoolgirl.”
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