Press Abuses


The Watsons

Margaret and James Watson told the inquiry that after their daughter, Diane, was murdered in 1991 inaccurate press reporting implying that she bore some responsibility for her own death contributed to the suicide of their fifteen-year-old son, Alan. When his body was found he had copies of the articles in his hand.

Margaret Watson said: ‘I’m afraid that all just became too much for Alan. And I don’t blame him because I can understand. So the journalists in this country kicking on about the chilling effect if you do away with the Press Complaints Commission – which you have to do away with – that if you do away with the Press Complaints Commission it will have a chilling effect on journalists. What about the deadly effect it has on the victims and misreporting, the malicious lies, the malicious falsehoods? Just because a person’s deceased, you can write what you want, and they certainly did it.’

Asked about an article published on the day Alan was buried, she replied: ‘I thought at least they would leave us alone for Alan’s funeral. They took away his respect, they took away his dignity, and the very day that we were laying our son to rest . . . If you say that’s good journalism, if any journalist thinks that’s good, God forgive you, because I won’t.’

The McCanns

After three year old Madeleine McCann disappeared on holiday in Portugal in 2007, the tabloid press published a series of contradictory, incorrect and upsetting stories about her parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, and their friends. In a sample period between September 2007 and February 2008 the papers had between them published 110 articles, many of them on their front pages, suggesting among other things that the couple had murdered their own daughter, disposed of the body and then engaged in a series of further deceptions on the police and the public. Some articles also cast doubt on the relationship between the couple, on their morality and on the genuineness of their religious faith.

On top of this, the News of the World editor, Colin Myler, once bullied the McCanns into giving an interview they did not want to give on the grounds that they owed a debt to the paper for publicizing their case. Later, he published long extracts from Kate McCann’s personal diary, claiming the paper had permission when it did not. Kate McCann described to the Leveson Inquiry the sense of violation she felt as she read her private thoughts in the tabloid. And she described the anxiety that goes with knowing that her younger children can still, today, see repeated on internet websites the lies conjured up by the newspapers that have since apologised.

The former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings wrote: ‘I hang my head in shame at what our trade, as well as the Portuguese police, has made of the McCann story.’ In August 2007 Gerry McCann spoke in a televised interview about ‘huge amounts written with no substance’ and ‘absolutely wild speculation’. And the couple, through lawyers, repeatedly appealed to papers to check things more carefully. Yet no investigation was carried out and no journalists were punished. Asked by MPs who at the Express papers had been reprimanded, editor Peter Hill replied: ‘I reprimanded myself, because I was responsible.’

In July 2008 the McCanns sued Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and (at that time) the Evening Standard, in relation to eighty-five articles. As Gerry McCann later explained to the Leveson Inquiry: ‘The complaint was resolved with the payment of a substantial donation to be used in the search for Madeleine, and the publication of an apology by the Evening Standard. While the Daily Mail agreed to carry a number of free adverts (or appeals for information) on behalf of the Find Madeleine campaign in their contintental editions, they were not willing to publish an apology. The Mail resisted on the basis that they had published a number of articles which were supportive of us which they believed largely balanced the articles reporting allegations and suspicions about us.’ In other words, he said that the Mail did not deny publishing allegations and suspicions it could not justify. The industry paid out probably more than £2 million in damages to a dozen people because it had published an astonishing tally of more than 300 libels against them over a period of nine months. And, as Gerry McCann pointed out, many other libels – probably hundreds more – went unprosecuted.

Chris Jefferies

Around New Year of 2010/11 retired teacher Christopher Jefferies was arrested in Bristol on suspicion of murdering his tenant Joanna Yeates, but released without charge. He was found entirely innocent when another man confessed to the murder. But for the three days that followed his arrest he was monstered by the press. Even when Joanna Yeates’s grieving boyfriend, Greg Reardon, lent his support to Jefferies and challenged the morality of the press, the Mail on Sunday, Sunday Mirror and Sunday Express chose not to mention this fact to their readers. He was ‘weird’, ‘creepy’, ‘lewd’, ‘a loner’ and ‘obsessed by death’, according to the Sun. One day the paper reported he was a homosexual and the next that he had stalked a blonde woman. For the Daily Mirror he was a gay, dirty, eccentric peeping Tom and a friend of paedophiles. The Mail called him ‘Mr Strange’ and ‘Wizard’, wrote that he introduced pupils to macabre books and alleged that he had deserted his dying mother. The Star and the Express and the Sunday papers followed similar lines.

Jefferies has said that his arrest and his treatment in the press left him feeling that his real identity had been torn away and another entirely false one foisted upon him. He said: ‘I don’t think it would be too strong a word to say that it was a kind of rape that had taken place.’ But he added that whatever he felt, it had been worse for his friends and family: one relative spoke of feeling as though she had aged 100 years in the few days when Jefferies was under attack.

Jefferies sued. The result, again, was a collective apology in court, this time by the Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Record, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Scotsman, and an admission that the published allegations had been entirely untrue. The damages were reported to have been around £500,000. The Mirror and the Sun were later also prosecuted by the attorney general under the Contempt of Court Act and fined £68,000 between them.

The Hillsborough Disaster

After the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of April 1989, in which ninety-six people died, the Sun alleged on its front page that drunken Liverpool fans picked the pockets of the dead and urinated on them, and that they attacked rescue workers. It wasn’t true and it caused such outrage in Liverpool that to this day many in the city will not touch the paper. Earlier this year, twenty-three years after the disaster, the Sun published an apology on their front page following the end of the inquiry into the conduct.


The Dowlers

Amanda ‘Milly’ Dowler, aged thirteen, disappeared on the evening of 21 March 2002. Shortly before 13 April, with the police hunt at its height, the News of the World hacked her mobile phone. She had by then been murdered.

Reporters listened to at least four voicemail messages, one of which they transcribed as follows [the redactions are by Surrey Police]: ‘Hello Mandy. This is [REDACTED] from [REDACTED] Recruitment Agency. We are ringing because we have interviews starting today at [REDACTED]. Call back on [REDACTED]. Thanks, bye bye.’ The paper took this to mean that Milly was alive and, using the name ‘Mandy’, seeking work in the Midlands, where the agency was based. It sent reporters to the agency to question staff, telling them, according to the Surrey Police account, that they (the reporters) were working ‘in full cooperation’ with the police. The agency staff then called Surrey Police to check this and the police in turn called the News of the World to find out what was going on. The paper stated bluntly that it had acquired its information from Milly’s phone and gave detectives its transcript of the message. And despite appeals from the police – and warnings that the message might well have been the work of a hoaxer – the paper reported its supposed angle on the Dowler story in that weekend’s edition.

Days later the paper was in touch with Surrey Police again, now telling them it was convinced Milly was looking for factory work in the north of England, and indeed the News of the World actually staked out one factory. By now detectives had themselves accessed Milly’s voicemails (legally) and they formed the view that the message was intended for someone called ‘Nana’ rather than ‘Mandy’. Inquiries established that the recruitment agency had a client called Nana, that Milly Dowler’s number had by pure chance been entered in their records in mistake for the correct number, and that therefore the message on Milly’s phone had been meant for someone else. Informed of all this, the News of the World refused to believe it.

It was on the afternoon of Monday 4 July that the Guardian revealed online that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. There was instant and widespread horror and the story was soon dominating the television and radio bulletins. That evening, however, the editors of most of the national daily newspapers made a striking choice. Usually they will embrace any story that is firing up the emotions of their readers, but not this time. The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Daily Express all judged that this outrage against a dead child and her bereaved family did not even merit a paragraph on the front page. The Daily Mail and The Times, meanwhile, pushed the story down to second or third billing, the Mail placing its report in the shadow of a much bigger headline about tax and the elderly. Dowler may have been the lead story for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and, naturally, the Guardian, but significantly those three account for less than one eighth of daily newspaper readership.


The Bowles Family

Sebastian Bowles, aged eleven, was one of twenty-eight people killed in a coach crash in Switzerland in March 2012 while returning from a ski trip. His father, Edward, mother, Ann, and sister, Helena, aged nine, were staying in a Swiss hotel designated for bereaved families when Edward and Helena were photographed from a distance. Both were holding flowers and Edward Bowles was comforting his daughter, who was crying. (At about the same time, reporters had gathered on the doorstep of their home and were questioning neighbours about the family.) Other family photographs were taken without permission from Edward Bowles’s Facebook site and were published on the websites of some newspapers, as were photographs and extracts from a ski-trip blog site, also reproduced without permission.

The Daily Mail was one of these papers. Mr Bowles complained to the Mail through his solicitor, Giles Crown, and through the PCC, and the paper took down the Facebook pictures – though it said they had been ‘openly accessible’, a point Mr Bowles disputed. The paper did not remove the photograph of the grieving Helena from its website and it was still there three months later. When the Mail finally took it down it said it had not known that the picture, which had been taken by an agency, was of Helena despite the fact that one of the facebook photos they had previously published of Sebastian had been cropped to remove Helena.

Mr Crown, giving evidence to the inquiry on behalf of Mr Bowles, argued that the paper was in no doubt about the family’s wishes and could easily have established the identity of the girl in the picture. The PCC code bans the photographing of children under sixteen years of age without parental permission, and it also requires discretion and sensitivity in the reporting of grief and shock. The inquiry noted that these events happened while its hearings were in progress

J.K Rowling

The author J. K. Rowling described to the Leveson Inquiry her efforts to protect her children from press scrutiny. She explained: ‘As an adult I have made certain choices in my life and I must accept that certain consequences follow. However, my children have not made any such choices. I consider that they should be allowed to enjoy a normal childhood in which to grow and develop as people in peace, without outside interference by the media.’ Rowling recounted an incident involving her elder daughter: ‘She was in her first year at primary school and I unzipped her school bag in the evening and among the usual letters from school and debris that every child generates, I found an envelope addressed to me and the letter was from a journalist. It’s my recollection that the letter said that he intended to ask a mother at the school to put this in my daughter’s bag . . . I know no more than that. I don’t know whether that’s how the letter got in my daughter’s school bag or not, but I can only say that I felt such a sense of invasion that my daughter’s bag . . . It’s very difficult to say how angry I felt that my five-year-old daughter’s school was no longer a place of, you know, complete security from journalists.’

Jacqui Hames

In 2002 David Cook was part of a Metropolitan Police team investigating the murder of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator and the business partner of Jonathan Rees, who was employed extensively by the News of the World. After Cook made an appeal about the Morgan case on the BBC’s Crimewatch programme, the News of the World began a surveillance operation against him and his then wife, Jacqui Hames, also a police officer. Their phones were hacked, they were placed under surveillance (Cook was followed as he walked his children to school) and the paper acquired information about Hames’s work record, which, she told the inquiry, could only have come from police files.

When the couple complained, according to Hames, neither the Metropolitan Police nor the News of the World showed a serious interest in getting to the bottom of this, the paper claiming that it had been trying to find out whether Cook and Hames were having an affair. They were married. Hames told the inquiry she believed that the News of the World had put her and her husband under surveillance because ‘suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry were using their association with a powerful and well-resourced newspaper to intimidate us and try to attempt to subvert the investigation’.


Sienna Miller

Sienna Miller described what it was like to be pursued by photographers: ‘For a number of years I was relentlessly pursued by about ten to fifteen men almost daily, pretty much daily and, you know, anything from being spat at or verbally abused. I think that the incentive is really to get as strong a reaction as possible, so – you know, as other people have mentioned – but being jumped out at, when you get a shock, or saying things to kind of get some emotional reaction. They seemed to go to any lengths to try to upset you, which is really difficult to deal with.’ She went on: ‘I would often find myself – I was twenty-one – at midnight running down a dark street on my own with ten big men chasing me and the fact that they had cameras in their hands meant that that was legal, but if you take away the cameras, what have you got? You’ve got a pack of men chasing a woman and obviously that’s a very intimidating situation to be in.’

Maria Church

As part of an intensive operation against Charlotte Church, who was just sixteen when it began, the News of the World hacked her phone and the phones of her mother, Maria, and stepfather, James. They also hacked the phones of others in her small Welsh village, including that of the Parish Vicar.

Church said reporters ‘totally immersed’ themselves in her life and has alleged that the paper published thirty-three hacking-based news stories about her in four years. One story in 2005 revealed that her stepfather had had an affair and had taken cocaine. Shortly before that was published her mother, who had known about the affair and knew the article was being prepared, attempted to take her own life. Church told the inquiry: ‘It just had a massive, massive impact on my family life, on my mother’s health – which the News of the World had reported on before then – on her mental health state and her hospital treatment, which we also think the only way they could have known about that hospital treatment, etc., was either through the hacking or possibly through the bribing of hospital staff, etc. So they knew how vulnerable she was and still printed this story.’

In her written statement Church described the sequel: ‘The News of the World put a proposal to my mother. The proposal was that News of the World wanted an exclusive story of her breakdown, self-harming and attempted suicide in exchange for not printing a follow-up story about my father’s infidelity. My mother gave them the exclusive interview, which was published on 18 December 2005. She felt she had no choice other than to play by their rules. The follow-up story of my father’s sex life was then published in the People the next week anyway. This sequence of events drove my mother to additional self-harming and had a dramatic impact on her mental health. The havoc that the press have created within my family has been devastating.’

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