Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Celebs on Phone Hacking and Hijacking

“Celebrity culture – I’m fascinated and repelled by it. Yet I end up knowing all about it.”

Week four of the Leveson Inquiry. Thus far we have heard evidence from a lengthy list of A-list celebrities. Although the famous names make the headlines, ordinary people have suffered just as much from the intrusion of the press. Is there a risk that the Leveson inquiry has been ‘hijacked’ by the PR-hungry rich and famous?

Evidence so far has shocked and surprised. Journalists have hacked phones, email accounts and surveillance. People have been threatened, blackmailed and bullied. Rumours have been published damning reputations. The British ‘rag mags’ have been responsible for a huge amount of unnecessary pain. We heard from the Dowler parents, who clinged to the hope that their daughter was still alive when they realised her phone messages had been listened to. And the Watson parents, whose son committed suicide when a newspaper published comments about their daughter’s murder. These stories all sound too familiar as we scan the other headlines which are full of deceit and slander. But what the stories really indicate is heartless carelessness. It strikes me as ironic that these activities were carried out by the free press. The free press which we claim upholds the British democracy.

So has the Leveson inquiry been ‘distorted by celebrities’? The schedule of witnesses was obviously created to make an impact in the initial weeks of the investigation. And that it certainly has done, with evidence from the likes of Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Sienna Miller and Charlotte Church.

Graham Foulkes, whose son was killed in the July 7 bombings and whose phone was hacked, believes that ‘Leveson has been hijacked by so-called celebrities’. He refuses to give evidence. Listening to the evidence over the past few weeks, one may certainly form that opinion. However, having watched the footage and reading the transcript, not one of the celebrities have suggested that they have suffered anything comparable to those who have lost children. Some even went out of their way to emphasise so. Surely it is sensical to hear evidence from the famous, given that they are the targets of celeb-obsessed journos who feed the public’s celeb-obsessed hunger. As Coogan points out, the celebrities are purely speaking on behalf of the public, acting as their ‘mouthpiece’.

We should remember that until it was revealed last summer that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, nobody paid the least attention to Rowling’s plight, or offences against the reputation and privacy of Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant. It was the hacking of an innocent child’s phone that caught the attention of the public, not the numerous invasions of celebrities’ privacy.

In the near future, Leveson will consider the critical issues about press regulation. Perhaps an independent body will be established, instead of the media ‘policing the media’. The inquiry may be criticised for being distorted by A-listers, but this should not overshadow the importance of the work being conducted. How can the contest between privacy and freedom of speech be balanced? It would be frivolous to mistake this for some kind of star-studded soap opera.

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