By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.
An inquiry under way in the Royal Courts of Justice London, just a few hundred yards from Fleet Street, once the heart of the British newspaper industry, is becoming — in the low key way in which the British like to think they always do things (but often don’t) — a global event. It is the consequence of a crisis, as inquiries frequently are. But it will have consequences of its own: one of these may be to redefine journalism for the 21st century.
In July, the forward march of Rupert Murdoch and his son James through the British media and political establishment was halted — cruelly, abruptly, with every sign of the chaos and clamor which his tabloids usually love, indeed often create. The efforts by his British newspaper subsidiary, News International, to lock in the narrative that phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid News of the World was the preserve of one “rogue” reporter in 2006 — Clive Goodman, the Royal Correspondent, who had paid for his sins with a short sharp prison sentence — fell apart. Like Marley’s ghost from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, the awful truth came through the door, dragging a clanking chain made up of mobile phones, mementos of the hackings into the private lives of this celebrity and that politician and, most horrible, of ordinary people, caught in some media storm, for a few days the biggest story in town, and thus regarded as fair game.
No escaping that. Politicians, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, beat their breasts and said they had been too servile to the man who had four of the most important newspapers in the land and controlled the largest share of the only major satellite broadcaster, now rivaling the BBC. No more kow-towing to the Murdochs. The Press Complaints Commission, which handles complaints against the press and had foolishly said that nothing was amiss at the News of the World, was for the chop. A Commission, with full powers to examine and propose, was set up, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson, a judge with a reputation for probity and profundity.
That Commission has been under way for more than a month now, and it has made for good copy. For days, big names — actor Hugh Grant, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, comedian Steve Coogan, and the former head of Formula One racing, Max Mosley — sat in a kind of witness box and told of harassment, threats, and gross intrusions. Mosley, whom the News of the World had caught in a sado-masochistic orgy with girls dressed in Wehrmacht “uniforms” and was so shocked that it put photographs of it across six pages. Mosley refused to be shamed into silence and said his tastes, however eccentric, were nobody’s business but his own.
J.K. Rowling spoke of being trapped in her house by squads of paparazzi and reporters seeking anything for a story: one had got into her five-year-old daughter’s school and put a note in her schoolbag for her mother, begging for an interview. One day, she said, when she thought they had gone because there was no story about her anywhere, she came out to find that two more were still lying in wait. When her PR assistant asked them why they were there, they told her that they were bored in the office.