Private grief is not public interest 1

Last year people I know and love were caught up on the periphery of a piece of national news. For several days they had to put up with the stress of unwanted and unprincipled press attention. They learnt that all the bad things you hear about certain members of the Press are true.

Photographers trespassed to get photos which intruded upon people’s grief (and were angry and offended when the tables were turned and they were photographed). Reporters lied- primarily by omission- and acted as if they didn’t know some of the clauses of the Editors’ Code of Practice (then were upset when they met people who did). When the facts weren’t fresh or titillating enough they made things up, inventing hearsay and presenting it as common knowledge. A media feeding frenzy presented evidence of why so many think of journalists as scum.

I wanted to do something about it, to find a way to strike back and get some power given back to us, the public, over them, the newspapers and channels that exist to generate nothing but gossip and thinly veiled propaganda. But I didn’t. I couldn’t find a way into the subject of invasion of privacy that didn’t open people up to invasion of their privacy. I don’t have the tenacity of the creators of blogs such as Five Chinese Crackers, which take apart tabloid lies with such skill. And, I have to admit, I was nervous of the size and power of Britain’s tabloid press. What could I possibly do to affect them? Or, if I did have an effect on them, what could a bunch of people who have already proven themselves vicious and malicious, and have very large audiences, do to undermine me and harm me and mine?

But when there are publications that think it’s okay to hack into the voicemail of a missing teenager to get stories then torture her friends and family- and hinder the Police investigation into her disappearance- by deleting messages because they’re greedy for more information, sooner or later we all have to stand up and shout our opposition to such scum. The latest, sickest revelation from the reopened News of the World phone hacking investigation makes me as angry as the stories I heard last year

If one good thing comes from this horror story let it be that more people get angry about the actions professional privacy invaders who hide behind the lie that they’re journalists. Already companies are pulling their advertising from the News of the World, hitting them financially, the only thing it seems they’ll pay attention to. But we should hope for more. We should demand a greater accountability from the Press, and more ways for us to make them pay every time their actions hurt anyone who is already having the worst time of their life.

The Press Complaints Commission is notoriously useless when it comes to curtailing the excesses of newspapers. That it’s a body run primarily by newspapers obviously doesn’t help. Self regulation clearly isn’t working in this case. And when the Express can withdraw from the Commission so it doesn’t even have to worry about what little bite the PCC has, it’s clearly time for something else.

One idea (and please bear in mind that I only just thought of this and it is after midnight) would be to set up a very special kind of Legal Aid, a state fund for people slandered by a paper to use in their action against the paper. It would have to be carefully managed- a panel of experts, none of them with any ties to the Press, would have to assess claims for libel aid before it could be handed out- but it could claim back costs in any actions which were successful. If the papers knew that the people they lied about could no longer be scared off by the threat of legal expenses then they might learn to stop lying.

That’s just one idea, and a wildly impractical one. I’m not going to suggest it when I write to my MP, but I will tell him that it’s time to scrap or seriously reform the PCC. And you should too. The more of us who make a noise about this the more likely politicians are to pay attention and try to do something in our interests for a change.

Time to cause trouble and demand a more honest and decent media.

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