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What would you expect someone to pay you for revealing your deepest, darkest secrets? At what point does journalism turn into harassment? These are issues being explored and debated in The Leveson Inquiry, an examination of the British media that has gripped the UK.
The explosive scandal hit the public’s TV screens over the summer when it was revealed that tabloid newspaper The News of the World had been gaining much of its ‘exclusive’ information by hacking into the phones of many celebrities, politicians and victims of crimes. Private investigators had even been tailing people embroiled in the most news-worthy stories.
In some cases, the phone hacking had led to email hacking and had even given journalists access to private passwords and PIN numbers. More and more victims of the hacking came forward, an outcry broke out, and the paper finally closed down on July 10 2011, publishing its last edition.
Many of its editors and employees, former editor Andy Coulson in particular, denied all knowledge of the phone hacking, and many were arrested. Founder and Chairman of News Corporation and owner of News of the World Rupert Murdoch was also put into a tricky situation, jeopardising his takeover of BSkyB.
So what is the outcome of this huge story? On July 13 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a two-part inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson to investigate the role of the press and police in the scandal. It will also examine the current culture, practices and ethics of the media and govern the future of press regulation.
The inquiry opened on Monday November 14, with an introduction from Lord Justice Leveson himself saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
Among the key hearings were: JK Rowling, Sienna Miller, Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan. Possibly the lowest of the low, parents of abducted children were targeted. When 13-year-old Milly Dowler was abducted and killed in 2002, her parents would continually call her phone, hoping for some response about their daughter’s disappearance.
Almost unbelievably, Milly’s phone was also hacked, voicemail messages deleted from her inbox. Mrs. Dowler recounted how elated she was when she realized something had changed: “I rang her phone. It clicked through onto her voicemail, so I heard her voice and it was just like, ‘she’s picked up her voicemail, she’s alive’.”
The inquiry also heard from young actress, Sienna Miller. She told of a closely-guarded secret being revealed, meaning she was led to accuse her family and closest friends after an anonymous journalist rang her saying he knew all about it.
Her run-ins with the paparazzi were possibly the most shocking: “I would often find myself — I was 21 — 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?”
Miss Miller’s statement raises a valid point – where is the line? Is Britain to maintain its freedom of the media, meaning tabloid journalists are able to hound celebrities to breaking point just for that photograph of them lashing out? Or will a new, stricter policy be put in place, meaning they can’t publish anything they want by any means necessary? And will this hinder freedom of speech if it is put in place?
Either way, it seems something must be done to prevent further incidents. JK Rowling highlighted: “The attitude seems to be…you’re famous, you’re asking for it.” Is this now an excuse that is wearing a little thin?