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.
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