Baroness Hollins has personally seen the worst behaviour of the press. She hopes that government can work with editors and owners of newspapers to find a real way forward.
As someone who witnessed examples of the worst excesses of press behaviour first hand, I am getting increasingly concerned about the way in which the Government is plotting the way forward, following the Leveson Inquiry.
I gave evidence to Lord Justice Leveson very reluctantly indeed. My family and I value our privacy. We did not relish the thought of any more unwanted attention. But I felt it was important to put our experience into the public domain, in order for a full and balanced picture to emerge, of what it is actually like to be the subject of sustained media attention. To be fair, there were both positive and negative sides to the experience.
My daughter was the victim of a violent crime and her story made the headlines on TV and in the newspapers for weeks. The coverage tended to tell my daughter’s story in a compassionate and honest way, which led to generous donations to a trust fund set up to assist her recovery. Yet once we had agreed to go public to help police with their inquiries, it seemed as if the press felt that they had the right of complete access to our lives.
Extraordinary sums of money were offered, all of which we declined. Had we accepted, the implication was that we would end up in some way owned by the media organisation in question. Expressions of sympathy seemed to mask a desperation by journalists to get a better story than their competitors. The intrusion went on not for a few days but continued for months. Journalists trespassed on the family’s property and would not leave. Others posed as visitors in the hospital waiting room.
It is not only the means by which journalists sought to obtain stories – it was also the inaccuracy of what went into print. Exaggerated, sometimes entirely invented accounts of my daughter’s recovery were published and repeated. One article, spread over two pages, contained 28 supposed facts, only two of which were correct. The others were fabricated and sensationalised. But this information was repeated by other journalists again and again in the same and in different newspapers. None of these journalists checked their information. They simply took it from the internet, reordered it, changed the emphasis and called it an exclusive. In my profession of medicine, that would be called plagiarism.
But it was the sensationalism that was hardest to take. The emphasis was always on the crime and the severity of the injury. There was almost no thoughtful discussion of what her injury would mean to my daughter. All in all, on top of the pressure of coping with her injury, the impact of the media attention was incredibly intrusive and deeply stressful.
There are now four draft bills proposing different ways in which Lord Justice Leveson’s reforms could be implemented. As a victim – or as I prefer to call myself, an expert by experience - I would like to suggest that the one drafted by the campaign group, Hacked Off, is the most faithful to the Leveson report and the least political. Given the Prime Minister’s supposed commitment to be guided by the views of victims, this bill would be a good place to start.
I’m not arguing that victims of press abuses should be able to dictate the terms. But we should have a clear and loud voice at the table. I fear that we are, to some extent, being shut out by a secretive process going on behind closed doors, in which the Government and newspaper editors and proprietors make a deal which water’s down Lord Justice Leveson’s original recommendations.
If any other industry was facing so much public criticism and concern, the press would be investigating vigorously and demanding a public and transparent response, in the full glare of the media spotlight. I wonder why is it that we do not know what is going on behind the scenes?
In the end, time will be the judge of whether we have taken the right path. In two years’ time, will the British public be proud of our free press, because it is truthful and fair? Proud because it respects everyone’s right to freedom from privacy and harassment ? In two years time, will we have an honest press, that uses ethical and lawful methods and journalists and editors who can defend their practices? And when standards have been breached, will victims receive prominent and willingly-given apologies? In short, will trust have been restored? I suggest that the newspaper industry may need a little extra help.