Another petty act of press intimidation

Story TimelinePosted: November 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

by Brian Cathcart

A few days ago something happened which we in Hacked Off had been hoping to arrange for many months. For the first time, a large group of people who have been victims of press abuses met informally in central London and were able to offer each other support.

The idea for such a gathering came to us after we met a victim of phone hacking who has no public profile. Her story is like many heard at the Leveson inquiry this week: she is utterly blameless but was targeted by the News of the World because she knew someone famous, and she was left feeling horribly violated. When she sued she was placed under enormous pressure to withdraw, so that soon she also felt isolated and frightened.

It seemed obvious to us that she needed to meet others who were in a similar position, so that she could feel the strength of numbers. Even for some of the famous victims, the same seemed to apply.

It proved difficult to arrange. Though they have one thing in common, these people are otherwise very diverse and widely scattered, and they are represented by a number of different solicitors. We at Hacked Off also had a lot of other things to do.

The first real opportunity came as the Leveson inquiry began hearing from victims this week. Hacked Off, with a lot of help from the lawyers, finally made the get-together happen.

We met on Tuesday evening at a venue in central London. It was a fascinating and memorable occasion. Since this whole issue is about privacy it would scarcely be appropriate to recount the details, but the famous and the obscure mixed, talked and made friends and I think for at least some of them the vital objective of finding common strength was achieved.

Think of what many of them have endured: the persistent, often covert intrusion, the knowledge that News International and other journalists were in possession of some of their most private secrets, the fear, for themselves, their families and friends, that if they spoke up or sued, sooner or later these newspapers would exact their cruel revenge. There was a lot to talk about.

This was a private occasion, with no press release and no fanfare as that was the very last thing that any of the guests wanted. So why am I writing about it? Here is a clue: when the guests were arriving at the venue, press photographers were outside snapping them without their consent.

These newspapers will not let up. They are used to destroying people’s lives, they don’t want their fun spoiled and they are ready to use all their old tricks to prevent that happening. They saw a gathering of their victims, not as an occasion for their own shame, but as a chance for revenge, sabotage or abuse.

Remarkably, the first paper to issue a snide story was one of Rupert Murdoch’s: the Times (££). Now the Daily Mail has followed with something almost identical. Here are some of the questions they pose, and the answers.

Wasn’t it inappropriate for celebrities to hold a victory party in a private London club just as the public inquiry was starting?

It wasn’t a “victory party”; no one used those words and that was not the mood. No toasts, no cheers, no champagne. Yes, famous people were there, but so were others: I spoke to a former police officer, a computer person, someone’s PA, an official from an NGO. After what they have gone through, these people are more than entitled to meet.

They did so in a private venue because it was a private event. Perhaps the press would have preferred a public venue — just imagine, they could have listened as well as spied.

And as for the inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson himself has spoken publicly of the merit of victims sharing their experiences with each other. In fact he invited the victims to meet each other at the seminars in October, although that wasn’t very practical since they would also have been mingling with representatives of the press.

Was Hacked Off (or somebody else) coaching the inquiry witnesses in how to present their evidence at the inquiry?

Nobody was coaching anyone. In any case, only five of those present had yet to testify before Leveson and two of those were solicitors Mark Thomson and Mark Lewis. I would like to see someone try coaching them.

Who paid?

It wasn’t cheap — this was central London — though the prices quoted in the papers are way off the mark. But there was a bill and somebody had to pay it. Some of the better-off guests were happy to do so and we are grateful to them. Hacked Off has funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust but it doesn’t stretch to events of this kind. Nor was the event used to raise funds.

Before leaving this subject it is worth reflecting on one or two other matters. The newspaper industry has half a dozen forums in which editors and senior executives meet routinely and often expensively over food and wine. (And those are just the publicly-known meetings.) In other words, they can coordinate, on their terms. And perhaps when they are together coaching goes on, just as James and Rupert Murdoch were coached before their select committee appearances. Who pays? Their proprietors, that exotic group of upright folk.

These are multi-million-pound companies employing their own full-time lawyers, PR people and (let’s not forget) their papers to spread their propaganda every day. Yet so paranoid and morally feeble are they that when their critics meet — when their victims meet — some of them think it appropriate to subject those victims and critics to even more intrusion and innuendo. (Think of the irony, too, of journalists suggesting it is wrong for like-minded people to meet over a drink.)

The victims are not above comment. Nobody is, and they know it. But they deserve to be dealt with on the basis of what they say.

It is only weeks since the Times congratulated James Murdoch for accepting that placing lawyers for victims under round-the-clock surveillance (as his company did last year) was not the right way to deal with their legal challenge. The editor of the Times now thinks the right way to deal with News International’s victims is to buy paparazzi pictures of them and print lazy, inaccurate, hostile nonsense about their private activities.

What is really going on here, of course, is all too familiar: the Times and the Mail have simply engaged in another small act of intimidation. The message to anybody speaking out about press abuse is clear. We will watch you; we will follow you; whatever you do, however innocent or worthwhile it may be, we will do everything in our power to make it look nasty.

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

14 comments

  1. Bradley Colmans - reply

    Very well made points. I did notice on the Mail website they werent allowing any comments, claiming legal reasons. Doesnt take a genius to work out the real reason

  2. bob gaffey - reply

    vindictive and tawdry typical Daily Mail
    QC sounds like he wants to censor such meetings as does Mail but screams for freedom of expression ie. only for them
    bob

  3. Nile - reply

    Well, that’s Brian Cathcart’s private life $***ed, then.

    His choice, I guess: courageous, even. But he didn’t ask his students to volunteer for this; nor, for that matter, any other student at Kingston…

    …And any time any of them run for Parliament, or a Local Council, or think their job in (say) a primary school or childrens’ ward is secure, nasty little men in greasy raincoats will walk up and down the street, slipping photocopied reprints of the story about the Kingston Lecturer, his students, the unspecified barnyard animal and a vacuum cleaner – or whatever their fertile minds can invent and get their legal team to sign off on as ‘not actionable’ – and there will be absolutely no recourse.

    …And if you laughed at the idea of the barnyard animal – yes, the editor will insist that the published photographs obscure the face and they’ll refuse to divulge his or her name ‘to respect the privacy of an innocent victim’ – bear in mind that all and any mud will stick, no matter how ridiculous.
    And it’ll always be the first or second item on the listing when employers Google for your name or academic history.

    Journalists are good at it, its their *job*, and there are far, far more subtle things that they can dig up, distort, and roll out every year or so.

    So, how will it feel to be a former student or colleague of ‘disgraced’ former lecturer Cathcart (as he will be described in the media when he retires with honour or gains a more senior position at another institution) knowing what’s in store for you?

    In case you ask, I’m disgusted by it too: and I got to see it happening, for real. No, I’m not telling you who got hit by it: there are people close to me – and to you! – with interesting private lives that they and I would like to keep private; and people close to them, and to me – and, quite possibly, to you – with public lives that can and will be targeted.

    As a teenager, I read all kinds of dystopian fiction and harrowing real-life accounts of life in countries with oppressive surveillance, a file on everybody, and nasty little men with headphones sitting in the basement taping private conversations.

    I feared that 1984 might, one day, come true; but I never imagined that I’d grow up in a country where free citizens willingly choose to pay for such repellent intrusions, subsidising surveillance and smears with every paper they purchase, for amusement and the vicarious glee of seeing their fellow-citizens’ private lives destroyed by malice.

    You live in this country, too. What did you buy this morning? What did you pay for, in the direct debit to your cable TV company?
    What products did you buy, recycling your money in the products’ advertising budget?

    Meanwhile, make sure you’re never, ever photographed with Brian Cathcart. Long after the libel case has been and gone, and a solemn undertaking has been given never to repeat those disgusting allegations, the photo and some perfectly innocuous story will appear between an advert for a dairy product with a cartoon cow, and an advert for the latest vacuum cleaner. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be the butt of some good-natured jokes at work. If you’re unlucky, it’ll be on the table, without comment, at your selection panel as a school governor, a magistrate, or a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate.

  4. Elaine Decoulos - reply

    This is all a bit much. I am no fan of the British tabloid press, having been defamed by many of them, but I am also American and know how free speech works. Apparently, it is rather difficult to explain. I think you have to have been raised in America to fully understand how it works in practice.

    While I found all the witnesses extremely compelling, even the celebrities, and I have utmost sympathy for what they have all been through, it may have been sensible to have delayed the gathering for a few weeks and turned it into a Christmas party. You may not have liked the press reports, but one could easily argue that reporting the existence of the gathering was in the public interest, seeing as it has to do with a public inquiry.

    There is a sense of overreaction here. Evidence has been presented of intimidation, but this is not it. If you want to take the moral high ground, you need to call a spade a spade. And if you want to talk about feelings of isolation while being a victim of press wrongdoing and worse, try walking in my shoes. It’s a lonely walk with many people standing in my way and profiting off me and I am not referring to the press. And despite everyone in the Hacked Off campaign knowing about me, I was not invited to the gathering. The reason why is a matter of public interest.

  5. D M Kennedy - reply

    I can see how it might be in the public interest that the get-together happened. Using it to insinuate – on no evidence – that the evidence to the Leveson inquiry is questionable is only in the press’s interest.

    Since Brian explains in the above post that they had the get-together now because they were all in one place, for the enquiry, it probably wouldn’t have been practical to postpone the gathering until they were no longer all in one place. (Although I don’t know how long the inquiry’s going to last.)

  6. Gordon Darroch - reply

    Two things, Brian. Firstly, you mention that “press photographers were outside snapping them without their consent”. I do hope that whatever else comes out of this inquiry, it does not lead to a situation where consent is required for all photographs. Oliver Letwin is among those who might take a different view. If you’re in the public spotlight and you’re in a public place, and somebody takes your picture, you can’t really complain (though if they go on to supplement it with misleading, inaccurate copy then you most certainly can – and should).
    Secondly, the press photographers you mention are later described as “paparazzi photographers”. Which were they? Do you know? Because they were either one or the other – unscrupulous freelancers who’ll break the law for the right fee, or accountable employees of news organisations (there are also plenty of scrupulous freelancers around, incidentally, before anyone else makes the point). By eliding the two you risk undermining your own cause, which ought to be the freedom of good, conscientious journalists to do their work without being tainted by the activities of their unprofessional, ethically deficient fellow travellers.
    Overall, I’d agree that this is pretty low. In fact these witnesses, who until recently would probably have had their efforts rewarded with round-the-clock surveillance from Murdoch’s hired guns, should be heartened that his papers and the Mail have had to retreat to such a weak attack position. The readers will judge these features on their merits, such as they are.

  7. Ian Rennie - reply

    “Apparently, it is rather difficult to explain. I think you have to have been raised in America to fully understand how it works in practice.”

    Does being raised in America also teach you how to be frightfully patronizing?

    • Elaine Decoulos - reply

      Ian, not in the least. Growing up in America teaches you to question authority, right wrongs & hold people to account. If you want to know where I am coming from, I suggest you read my Memorandum to the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee for their Press Standards Inquiry:

      http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmcumeds/memo/press/ucps3902.htm

      And my one public judgment in my libel claim:

      http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmcumeds/memo/press/ucps5302.htm

      It might be helpful to bear in mind that David Sherborne, counsel to the victim Core Participants, has been my direct opponent in court on numerous occassions & is the one who got the remainder of the many hearings in my libel claim held in private. He also got the court file sealed, essentially turning my libel claim for an article published in The Daily Mail into a privacy action for his clients. Incredibly shocking when you think I am trying to get vindication for being libeled in a large circulation newspaper. To consider him a beacon for press wrongdoing, as he know appears to the public, would be misleading.

      It has been extremely painful for me to watch him prancing into court the past week on TV with his celebrity clients, seemingly like their guardian angel from the press, knowing what he did to my libel claim. For the record, he also got it stayed for costs until and unless I paid Bruno Schroder, a billionaire, £25,000. And then he goes on about access to justice and the need for CFAs!

      For the record, I asked to be a Core Participant in the Inquiry but was refused. Please see Lord Justice Leveson’s judgment:

      http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Transcript-of-judgement-relating-to-Elaine-Decoulos-4-October-PDF-50.2KB.pdf

      After he made his judgment in court, I asked him if it was because David Sherborne cannot represent me. He said no, but it does seem strange that I am excluded when you see the full list of the 51 victim Core Participants. I believe I am the only victim of press wrongdoing denied Core Participant status. For the record, I am still appealing his decision.

    • Elaine Decoulos - reply

      Just to let you know Ian, I did reply to your comment, but I think the Hacking Off campaign regrettably does not want to publish it, despite it being in the public interest. Here is a limited version which they may find more acceptable:

      Elaine Decoulos
      November 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

      Ian, not in the least. Growing up in America teaches you to question
      authority, right wrongs & hold people to account. If you want to know
      where I am coming from, I suggest you read my Memorandum to the
      Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee for their Press Standards
      Inquiry:

      http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmcumeds/memo/press/ucps3902.htm

      And my one public judgment in my libel claim:

      http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmcumeds/memo/press/ucps5302.htm

      It might be helpful to bear in mind that David Sherborne, counsel to
      the victim Core Participants, has been my direct opponent in court on
      numerous occassions & is the one who got the remainder of the many
      hearings in my libel claim held in private. He also got the court file
      sealed, essentially turning my libel claim for an article published in
      The Daily Mail into a privacy action for his clients.

      For the record, I asked to be a Core Participant in the Inquiry but
      was refused. Please see Lord Justice Leveson’s judgment:

      http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Transcript-of-judgement-relating-to-Elaine-Decoulos-4-October-PDF-50.2KB.pdf

      After he made his judgment in court, I asked him if it was because
      David Sherborne cannot represent me. He said no, but it does seem
      strange that I am excluded when you see the full list of the 51 victim
      Core Participants. I believe I am the only victim of press wrongdoing
      denied Core Participant status. For the record, I am still appealing
      his decision.

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  8. Stephen Barber - reply

    I am just another ordinary member of the public who has been horrified by the tactics used by the tabloid press to get stories. I do suggest that you report the misreporting to the Press Complaints Commission. Not because they will do anything useful about it, but to make the point.

  9. nicola spears - reply

    As a founding father of hacked off and an esteemed professor of journalism, I’m assuming you would only publish a piece which is 100 per cent accurate Brian.

    So I am mystified by the following key line:

    ‘It wasn’t a “victory party”; no one used those words and that was not the mood. No toasts, no cheers, no champagne.’

    I’ve read the pieces in the both the Times and the Mail – and neither used the phrase ‘victory party’. Neither do the versions I have seen refer to ‘toasts’, ‘cheers’, or ‘champagne’.

    I can’t be possible you’ve made these up to strengthen your complaint – for if you had done, surely it would be just the kind of false smear your campaign is worred about.

    Do explain.

  10. Michelle - reply

    I agree in principle with what you’ve said, however I think having Kerry Katona there, a woman who has courted the press and continued to thrust herself into the spotlight for money time and time again, does take away from the credibility of the gathering. I believe it was Steve Coogan himself who stated that he shouldn’t be harrassed because he has never used the press in this way.

    Further to this, having Max Clifford there, who has facilitated the sale of so many kiss and tell stories (another thing that Steve Coogan said he detested) and courted the red tops for decades making money by selling innocent people and celebs alike up the river, makes me feel confused about the whole point of the gathering. I can’t imagine Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant and the other non-celebrity victims had much to say to the likes of Max Clifford.

  11. Malcolm D B Munro - reply

    News International has on a number of occasions recently been described as a mafia.

    I have been closely following the US the hacking scandal from slightly before the Milly Dowling revelation thrust this whole abysmal business into the awkward glare of daylight.

    Watching witnesses to the Levison Inquiry on BBC’s Democracy site these past two and a half weeks has been at times harrowing and extremely trying. The sheer impotence of British police to act to prosecute and extent to which British politicians of all stripes are in thrall to Murdoch’s Empire leaves one mute with rage.

    Listening to and reading testimony today, I could not escape the thought the word which best describes collectively the activities we are hearing and reading about is racketeering.

    The US has a law which, being extremely powerful, is seldom used: Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racketeer_Influenced_and_Corrupt_Organizations_Act

    It has very successfully been used in the aftermath of the utter failure of other legal means to curb US Mafia activities.

    To my knowledge Britain, or more properly, England, has no similar law on its books.

    I wonder if the provenances of RICO were pointed out to the good Lord Levison, whether he would be minded to recommend to adoption of such a law, suitably amended to suit English practice and circumstance.

    As I say, the US law is powerful, nay, some say it is draconian. Its existence on the books acts as a powerful deterrent.

    The adoption of a similarly constructed law into the courts of the land of England would lend a powerful tool to those who are clearly rendered hapless and incapacitated by the present hopelessly weak laws available to them.

    If indeed a case can be made that the actions of certain elements of the press and their handmaidens and cohorts are engaging in racketeering, that at least addresses the most egregious of the present evils being perpetrated. With the temperature of the bathwater so reduced, the baby of privacy could then be addressed in a more rational manner.

    For the time being, it will profit the gracious readers of these splendid columns to scrutiny said act and consider what might be adopted and adapted into English law.

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