Listening to some of the testimony in the Leveson Inquiry has been depressing. The problematic practices of certain sectors of the media (print primarily, but it is not clear that broadcast media are exempt) goes way beyond phone hacking.
What has been most powerful at the Leveson hearings has not been the celebrity evidence – which has been the primary focus of television and newspaper coverage. Instead, it’s the evidence from the families and individuals that have been affected by tragedy that has had most power. These individuals have not sought to appear in the media in the first place, the media interest in them dependent on the tragedy. And they have found intrusion in their lives – cameras prying on private moments of grief; cameramen leaping in front of their cars, following them; some journalists pursuing them with calls, and stories; their lives, their grief, scrutinised day after day.
Journalists have a job to do. I get that. Sometimes that job involves providing explanation or colour in relation tragedy. I get that too. But some of the approaches used in the acquisition of that story cause me difficulties.
I have wondered about context. Are things worse now than they were ten or twenty years ago? Has the introduction of rolling news on television and radio meant that print journalists need to ratchet up the intrusion to make a newspaper worth buying when anyone who watched the news or checked the internet the day before would have the gist of the story? I’m not sure.
My limited experience of the attitudes of the press came over twenty years ago.
I was in Lockerbie in immediate aftermath of the disaster. My siblings were there on the night staying at my late grandmother’s house. The house a few doors away from that house was completely destroyed. The entrance into the area where she lived blocked off by barriers – the only vehicles entering and departing the site were official, removing bodies and body parts to the temporary mortuary at the local ice rink.
I was there a couple of days after. I saw the journalists prowl in packs asking stupid questions. On the day after the disaster my uncle – who had been one of a group who had helped to get the neighbour out of her house before it was destroyed – was asked if he thought this was serious. His response was choice.
My father and I – there a couple of days after – were stopped and asked for our views by various people within a few minutes walk along the main street as we got off the bus ready to go round to my granny’s house: how we felt; what we felt the seriousness of the disaster was; what we felt the impact was; and the like. We were badgered. Not just by one person. Anodyne questions persisted from those following us, and walking after us along the main street and other streets.
We did not give answers. We were not harassed in the way those giving evidence at Leveson were harassed. But we were left alone only when the next person wandering along minding his own business was seen.
This, and the experience of those that lived near my grandmother, left me concerned about the role of journalists in these events. Her neighbours found that by speaking to one outlet they were then assumed to be fair game by others – and were harassed for a period afterwards when dealing with their own grieving or coping process. This makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Yes, stories need to be reported, but respect for those affected means they should not be harassed/doorstepped. The process of recovery from tragedy is long and hard. Many people from Lockerbie were treated for PTSD related conditions months and years afterwards. Many remained affected and were treated for some twenty years. I do not think that any favours are done to those affected by the harassment. The coping and treatment of later years has to deal not only with the tragedy, but with the intrusion.
The circumstances of Lockerbie were exceptional. The enormity meant that perhaps the press intrusion was less than it might otherwise have been with the impact of the press dissipated to some extent by the number of people affected. But if we were noting intrusion in such a case (and in the aftermath) what of the case where one family has a tragedy, and the pressure of the media focused in a much more concentrated way? How easy it is for a desire to explain to move into a hunt for exclusives, to become ever more voyeuristic.
We hear much from the media about the freedom of the press. We hear little about the responsibility that goes with it. Leveson is showing us that for some journalists, perhaps even some newspapers, freedom of the press meant the freedom to act without responsibility.
The path to Leveson started with coverage of phone hacking, and intrusions into the privacy of celebrities. But it was the hacking of the voicemails of Millie Dowler that prompted the outrage that led to the inquiry.
The experience of the media coverage of the inquiry mirrors this experience. That coverage has focused on celebrity witnesses (the BBC ten o’clock news last night, for example, largely omitted reference to the powerful testimony from the Watson family yesterday morning preferring to focus on Steve Coogan). But those watching and listening to the hearings at home are finding the testimony of the non-celebrities more powerful. I hope that those responsible journalists are paying most heed to those who have suffered huge intrusion after their personal tragedies – and wondering how best to ensure that such intrusions do not happen in future.