Phone hacking on an “industrial strength” level was a widespread practice at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid: since July, more and more evidence supporting such allegations has come to light; over 5,000 people are alleged to have had their phones hacked. Just on Thursday, London police made their first arrest on charges of computer hacking by private investigators working for News International.
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry into media ethics last summer to investigate press standards. Starting this Monday, those who are alleged victims of phone hacking or had their privacy intruded on by the media organization gave testimony at the High Court in London. Bob and Sally Dowler, the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, gave their testimony on Monday and Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter Madeleine has been missing since 2007 while vacationing in Portugal, spoke before the panel on Wednesday. These parents had been thrown into the public limelight by unspeakable tragedy, only to see the NoW capitalize on the horror they found themselves in.
Three of those who testified Thursday — actress Sienna Miller, former Formula One chief Max Mosley, author JK Rowling — are famous and wealthy, and have made the decision to “stand up to a powerful press because they believed their right to privacy had been violated.”
Miller described being verbally abused and spat upon by the paparazzi; of being chased by ten men with cameras down the street at midnight; of accusing her family and friends of leaking stories to the press that, she later learned, had been acquired by hacking her phone.
Mosley won £60,000 in damages from the NoW in 2008 after a judge ruled that the paper’s story about him participating in a “sick Nazi orgy” had trespassed on his right to privacy. Mosley — the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists — has since campaigned actively to reform laws about celebrity privacy. He spoke about feeling that News International was out to “destroy” him after he sued NoW for breach of privacy; he has called for the press to notify public figures before publishing articles about them. He also spoke about his son, Alexander Mosley, who, having suffered from depression and drug addiction, was devastated by the NoW story and died after its publication. Mosley is currently taking legal action against Google to remove libelous Nazi references to him from the Internet in 22 countries.
Rowling’s testimony made all too clear how not only her privacy but that of her children and husband have been aggressively violated. When the publicity about Harry Potter had just begun, Rowling found a letter to her from the press inside her daughter’s schoolbag and felt a “sense of invasion”:
Later Rowling recalled how a journalist from the Scottish Sun had contacted the headmaster of her daughter’s school, claiming that there had been complaints about her daughter from other pupils and parents.
“My daughter was being accused of some kind of bullying,” she said. “There was not one word of truth in it … To approach my daughter’s school was outrageous.”
Rowling described going to a beach she thought was private, only to find that photos of her daughter in a swimsuit had been taken, in violation of the Press Complaints Commission’s dictum that photographers cannot take pictures of children without their parents’ permission. Even after a ruling and an apology, Rowling found that the photo was still being spread around the internet. She herself has only worn a swimsuit on the beach twice since 1998; she was photographed both times.
In 2008, Rowling literally ran with her children (one in a carriage) away from photographers besieging her house. As speculation about the fate of Harry Potter in the last book peaked, Rowling discovered that her daughter was being told that the press had learned that Harry Potter was going to die; Rowling said that
“If the press wanted to know they should have asked her; papers knew there wouldn’t be an answer but tried to entrap her child to do so instead.”
She emphasized that, no matter how famous parents are, children’s privacy must be protected as “where children are concerned the issue is fairly black and white.”
Rowling said that she had employed no fewer than 50 lawyers to deal with the press. Without extensive financial resources, taking on Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — taking on the press — is simply impossible.
But while the press seem to hold all the cards, the public’s appetite for every last detail about public figures’ lives is seemingly bottomless. In our internet age when information not only spreads like wildfire but has a lengthy — an endless — afterlife, the argument for stronger privacy laws seems more compelling than ever.
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Photo by David Ogren