A day on the stand at the Leveson inquiry

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Writing for Channel 4 News, journalist Joan Smith reflects on her day giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Now I know how actors feel before they go on stage. Waiting to give evidence at the Leveson inquiry was the most difficult moment of a long day, as I expect it will be for other witnesses this week.

There’s something unnerving about sitting in a hushed courtroom, knowing you’re on next, with the points you want to make running in an apparently endless loop in your head.

First you have to get into the courtroom, and it was a relief to leave behind all the photographers and camera crews who’d gathered to get pictures of alleged victims of phone hacking arriving at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.

It’s a gothic warren of a place, and a curious setting for an inquiry which is hearing evidence about intense tabloid interest in the girlfriends of actors and footballers.

Fearful stillness

Of course the inquiry is also about ordinary people – I was going to say less well-known people, but that’s no longer the case for Bob and Sally Dowler. The abduction and murder of their daughter Milly thrust them into the spotlight, and on Monday they talked in quiet but firm voices about the false hopes raised when Milly’s phone was hacked by someone working for the News of the World.

It was one of the few moments when the courtroom was completely silent, paralysed into an almost fearful stillness by the pathos of what we were hearing. The hacking of Milly’s phone led directly to the setting up of the Leveson inquiry so it seemed right that they should be the first victims to talk about their experience of tabloid intrusion.

Later in the day, Hugh Grant‘s evidence produced some dramatic moments as he
disagreed with Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, about his interpretation
of events and headlines. Grant came over as wry, modest and funny, although he was also visibly annoyed about years of intrusion into his private life.

Censorship

When I gave evidence, I was encouraged to talk not just about seeing my personal details in Glenn Mulcaire’s notes – a chilling experience I’ll never forget – but about the importance of a free press. That made the experience a little easier because this is something Icare passionately about, and I don’t think for one moment that the Leveson
inquiry is going to place unacceptable restrictions on the media.

I’ve spent years campaigning for free expression in countries where censorship is rife, talking to journalists who’ve been imprisoned and tortured because they tried to hold the powerful to account.

During the proceedings, I couldn’t help thinking about the latest demonstrations in Tahrir Square. In Egypt, people are risking death because they believe in the freedom to express themselves, championing values that some sections of the British press seems to have forgotten.

That is what the Leveson inquiry is about, and so far it’s doing a very good job of establishing what’s gone wrong with the popular press. It’s about values as much as regulation, and that came across very strongly in the first day of witnesses’ evidence.

I think those brave Egyptian demonstrators might be puzzled by what’s emerging in a steady stream from court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice; somehow, I don’t think they’re dying for the opportunity to publish pictures of Hugh Grant’s baby.

 

There’s a camaraderie among those of us who were victims

The ‘core participant victim’ on the day she gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry

The Independent, Tuesday 22 November 2011

I woke long before the alarm and was out of the house by eight. Then I got a bus to my solicitor’s office where I joined Milly Dowler’s parents, Bob and Sally for coffee. We spent half an hour going over final details as we prepared to give evidence at Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the ethics of the press.

In the lobby, I said hello to Max Mosley and someone introduced me to Hugh Grant. Then we were outside, ready for the short walk to the High Court and the waiting media. Even when you are expecting it, the massed ranks of cameras are a sight to behold. As I walked towards them, slightly ahead of Bob and Sally Dowler, I heard the endless click of shutters, as though a flock of birds had been startled by our arrival.

Inside, we got the lift to the second floor and entered court 73, where I greeted more alleged victims, Elle Macpherson’s former adviser Mary-Ellen Field and journalist Tom Rowland. After just a week of formal hearings, a camaraderie has developed among the core participant victims, as we’re known.

Mr and Mrs Dowler were the first witnesses and Lord Leveson treated them with gentle courtesy, thanking them for agreeing to appear. The moment when Mrs Dowler described finding space in her missing daughter’s voicemail – the mailbox had previously been full – electrified the room. Naturally Mrs Dowler fell to the conclusion that Milly was alive, not realising that her messages had been accessed and deleted by people working for the News of the World. The story is familiar by now – it triggered the setting up of the inquiry – but to hear it in her own words was almost unbearable.

There was a brief recess before it was my turn. A barrister for the inquiry, Carine Patry Hoskins, asked if I regard myself as a celebrity, which made me laugh – a rare light moment in a mostly sombre and often gruelling day. Like the other alleged hacking victims I’m aware of the irony that complaining about tabloid intrusion means having to talk about my private life. That is something Hugh Grant clearly found hard, although the court laughed when he described having to make a press statement in trying
circumstances: “I was dressed as a cannibal at the time.”

Yesterday’s evidence ranged far beyond phone hacking to cover aspects of media intrusion, and Lord Leveson is keen to hear witnesses’ ideas about how to reform the press. We are only at the beginning of a long process, but I don’t think that powerful, ethical journalism has anything to fear from this inquiry.

 

The gullible Vatican rings up sales for Benetton

Independent on Sunday, 20 November 2011

Plenty of people have got into trouble in the past few years because someone’s taken offence over something they’ve said or published. I’m thinking about the controversy almost six years ago over cartoons in a Danish newspaper, which led to embassies being stormed by angry mobs, while the home of the cartoonist who drew the prophet Mohamed was attacked as recently as last year. In 2004, a Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, was shot dead and almost decapitated by an Islamist who objected to his film criticising the role of women in Islam, and it’s only weeks since the Paris offices of a French satirical magazine were firebombed.

Now the Italian clothing firm Benetton has strayed into this territory, unveiling a deliberately sensational advertising campaign that features world leaders kissing. The pictures, including an image of the Pope locking lips with an Egyptian imam, have been digitally altered; no one could seriously believe that Barack Obama goes around snogging Venezuela’s demagogic president, Hugo Chavez. But the Vatican duly rose to the bait, denouncing the image of the Pope, whereupon Benetton offered an apology and withdrew it.

Result! I rarely go into Benetton these days and I don’t think of its clothes as distinctive, let alone edgy, but suddenly the brand is being talked about for the first time in ages. I was amused to see the Daily Mail getting the wrong end of the stick, talking about the company’s “humiliating climbdown” when Benetton had acquired masses of free publicity. But I’m pretty annoyed by the way the campaign trivialises the efforts of writers and artists who have taken risks because they care about human rights and freedom of expression. No one wants to have to go into hiding or live with armed bodyguards, but intellectuals such as the author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who collaborated with Theo van Gogh, put themselves on the line for a rather more substantial purpose than selling clothes.

Some companies build ethics and respect for human rights into their business; the Body Shop, for instance, set up a foundation that promotes environmental and social projects in developing countries. The Benetton ads appear under the made-up word “unhate”, which is the title of a new foundation that’s going to promote “tolerance”, and I suppose the company may have thought this a good moment to capitalise on antipathy towards politicians. But its psychobabble about wanting to create “positive energy” ignores basic facts, such as the reasons why few world leaders – let alone the president of South Korea – are likely to get into a clinch with the criminal dynasty that currently runs North Korea. Unhate, love, or whatever you want to call it is a breathtakingly inadequate response to the labour camps that await anyone who doesn’t conform in this most horrendous of dictatorships.

I don’t remember anyone paying Benetton so much attention since its campaign featuring a man dying of Aids in an Ohio hospital. The Aids photo attracted accusations of exploiting grief, although some activists welcomed it as a step in breaking the taboos that existed around the condition in the early 1990s. The new publicity campaign feels like a desperate and ill-judged attempt to go back in time, but in a world where the stakes are much higher. The Vatican can be relied on to make a fuss, but I don’t think many of us are taken in by this attempt to sex up a tired brand.

Why I’m giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry

Channel 4 News, Monday 14 November 2011

Journalist Joan Smith gives her personal account of why she’s giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry, set up to look at the ethics and practices of the press in the
wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

In all my years as a journalist, I’ve never attended a public inquiry, and I certainly
didn’t expect to be called as a witness. But as the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press opens, I’ll be at the Royal Courts of Justice to find out how it operates – and to get ready for my own appearance in the witness box in a week’s time.

Lord Leveson’s inquiry was set up as a result of the phone-hacking scandal currently engulfing News International. I’ve already been down to Court 73 to have a look at the wood-panelled room where I’m going to give evidence. And there are 20 more witnesses who are going to tell the inquiry exactly how it feels to be targeted by the popular press.

Some of the “core participants” are well-known names, from the film star Hugh Grant
to the parents of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Gerry McCann will give evidence about the media frenzy following the disappearance of his daughter Madeleine, while Chris Jefferies is going to talk about the ordeal he went through after he was arrested in connection with the murder of Joanna Yeates.

I’m not a celebrity or a victim of crime. I started my career in national newspapers at
the Sunday Times and I’ve written columns for The Times, the Independent
titles, the Guardian and the Evening Standard.

I’ve also campaigned for freedom of expression, advising the Foreign Office on how to
encourage press freedom in countries like Syria and China. So how do I find myself on a list of alleged victims of press intrusion alongside Sheryl Gascoigne, JK Rowling and Sienna Miller?

In April this year, I received an email from a detective working for Operation Weeting,
the Metropolitan Police investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World. He
invited me to a meeting to view notes compiled by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who worked for the paper until he went to prison in 2007 for hacking phones belonging to members of the royal household.

At the meeting, I was shown photocopied pages in which Mulcaire recorded my personal details and those of my then partner, who was a government minister. They included my home and mobile telephone numbers and a list of the papers I was writing for in 2004.

One of them was The Times. I could hardly believe my eyes. Was it really the case that the News of the World was paying a private detective to spy on me when I was writing a high-profile column and features for another News International paper? So it seemed, and the whole thing was made much worse by the fact that the surveillance began so soon after a tragedy. Only two months earlier, my partner had lost his eldest
daughter when she died in a sky-diving accident in Australia.

Not long before our details began to appear in Mulcaire’s notes, I wrote a column for The Times about press intrusion into private life. I was worried, I said, by “the
almost-unchallenged assumption that no one has a right to privacy any more,
regardless of what they are going through”.

Little did I know that my own privacy was about to be invaded by a newspaper owned by the very same proprietor. I hope Lord Leveson’s inquiry will look at the buccaneering
newsroom culture that allowed such extraordinary things to happen.

The dead we honour won our freedom to disagree

Independent on Sunday, 13 November 2011

I suppose I should by now be familiar with the phenomenon of coercive compassion. It appeared quite suddenly in 1997, when anyone who didn’t express extravagant distress over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was regarded as shockingly heartless. So there is a historical parallel for the ugly hysteria that’s been whipped up about
Remembrance Day this year, even to the point of involving Prince William in an unseemly row about last night’s football match between England and Spain.

First, some background. The red poppy has been a symbol of remembrance since shortly after the First World War, when an American teacher, Moina Belle Michael, came up with the idea of adopting it as an emblem of the war dead. It was quickly taken up by British and French ex-servicemen and has been a means of honouring the fallen, and raising money for veterans and their families, ever since. Today, with British troops fighting in Afghanistan and in the recently ended Nato campaign in Libya, its potency as a symbol has been renewed. This year, the pressure to wear one has been greater
than ever.

The Duke of Cambridge, who is president of the FA, was said to be “livid” about Fifa’s decision to stop members of the England team wearing poppies during last night’s friendly, while David Cameron denounced it as “absurd”. Fifa quickly caved in, allowing England players to wear poppies on black armbands. Even the News Corp boss, James
Murdoch, took care to sport a poppy in his buttonhole when he faced MPs on Thursday for a second grilling about phone hacking.

I don’t doubt many individuals wear the red poppy with pride. What I don’t understand is why they want everyone else to wear one, regardless of how they feel towards war and its horrors. I’m not a pacifist but traditional Remembrance Day ceremonies make me uncomfortable, turning the dead into two-dimensional “heroes” when I know that many died in agony, confusion and despair. Increasingly, another tradition – the wearing of
white poppies – has been revived, the number of white-poppy wreath-laying ceremonies up from three last year to more than 40 in 2011. According to Bruce Scates, professor of history at Monash University in Australia, the white poppy became “an alternative way of remembering” in the 1920s. It was also a symbol of civilians who died in the First World War, marking it out from the largely military nature of official ceremonies.

This year, coercion of reluctant red-poppy wearers has been joined by an outbreak of sheer nastiness towards the few who wear white ones. On Friday, a Daily Telegraph blogger described them as “sanctimonious prats” and mocked their eccentric belief that
“there are better ways of solving conflicts than killing strangers”. Whether or not expressing such graceless opinions is an appropriate way to mark Armistice Day, it’s a vivid example of the intolerance that threatens to disfigure our remembrance of young men and women who perished in almost a century of wars.

If they died in the name of freedom, that has to include the freedom to think about war, suffering and sacrifice in different ways from the majority. It’s perfectly possible to honour the dead – essential, I’d say – without bullying or abusing the living. Rancorous attitudes to dissent are not the most convincing evidence I’ve seen of decency and
compassion.

‘Thoughts and prayers’ don’t do the job

The way the Norwegian prime minister responded to events earlier this year was exemplary

The Independent, Tuesday 8 November 2011

From time to time, every country has to deal with tragic events. It’s a sad requirement of a politician’s job to respond to terrorist attacks, fatal fires and the multiple fatalities caused by motorway pile-ups such as last weekend’s dreadful collisions on the M5. In such circumstances, we need public figures to speak for us, expressing sympathy for
the victims and acknowledging a collective feeling of sorrow in the face of
sudden death and destruction.

Not to be touched by such events would be inhuman. But each time another disaster or tragedy starts to unfold, I can’t help wishing that the people who speak on our behalf would use a little more imagination and eloquence. The conventional formula that the victims and their families are “in our thoughts and prayers” exhausted its meaning a
long time ago, so much so that, however well-intended, it sounds thoughtless and insincere. It’s become an empty ritual, especially in a country where millions of people never attend a church, mosque or synagogue.

I feel very sorry for the people who drove unwittingly into a black cloud on the M5 on Friday night, going from a routine journey to unimaginable horror in a matter of seconds, but I didn’t pray for them. I’m not religious and the only consolation I can find in such
catastrophes is the bravery of survivors and members of the emergency services, who risk their own lives in the hope of saving total strangers. It’s a testament to the human spirit that people perform these acts of heroism, and quite proper that their efforts are
acknowledged.

But a flat phrase such as “thoughts and prayers” is not an adequate response. It invokes a nation that no longer exists, united in agreement about the role of religion both in social life and as the principal source of comfort in hard times, whereas many of us now find that comfort in the company of family and friends.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for gushing displays of emotion. In 1997, Tony Blair went to the opposite extreme with his speech about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, creating one of the best-known sound bites of his premiership when he called her “the people’s princess”. But Blair’s public displays of feeling always had an actorish quality, as though he knew perfectly well how it was all going down with his intended audience.

Earlier this year, after Anders Breivik cold-bloodedly murdered dozens of people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, I was hugely impressed by the response of the Norwegian prime minister. Jens Stoltenberg managed to strike exactly the right note, sounding genuinely moved and at the same time talking about his country’s values. It was a rare
demonstration of sincerity and human solidarity, and I wish our leaders would learn something from it.

Charlie Hebdo, the fire-bombers and a case of moral idiocy

Independent on Sunday, 6 November 2011

In Tunisia a couple of months ago, I heard an academic speculate anxiously about the possibility that his country’s elections would bring an Islamist party to power. Like many Arab intellectuals, he was making tentative plans to move to France if Tunisia’s secular state appeared to be in danger of being dismantled. In the event, the largest party after
October’s elections was an Islamist organisation, Ennahda, although its leader has so far been careful to sound moderate.

In Libya, meanwhile, the lynching of Colonel Gaddafi was followed by an announcement that sharia would in future be the basis of all legislation. The leader of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, declared that a secular law banning polygamy was to be repealed, horrifying Arab women who had supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

It was in response to these developments that the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo decided to rename itself Charia Hebdocharia is French for sharia – for a
week, and announced the Prophet Mohamed as guest editor. A cartoon of Mohamed
appeared on the cover, accompanied by a speech bubble in which he threatened
“100 lashes if you don’t die laughing”. In no time at all, the magazine’s offices in Paris had been destroyed by a fire bomb. Its website was attacked by angry Muslims, who took down the content and replaced it with the chilling phrase “No God but Allah”.

No one was hurt, but the clear intention was to intimidate journalists. In any other week, the attack would have been a major news story – or that’s what I’d like to think. It was at least a relief to see politicians from France’s main parties uniting to condemn an act of terrorism. But it didn’t take long for a predictable chorus of “Islamophobia” to
start up, directed against the magazine. An assistant producer at France 24,
Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, accused Charlie Hebdo of contributing to “burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment”, apparently failing to consider that hurling a petrol bomb is a guaranteed way of achieving exactly that.

But the prize for moral idiocy has to go to Time magazine’s Paris correspondent, Bruce Crumley, who found it “hard to have much sympathy for the French satirical newspaper firebombed … after it published another stupid and totally unnecessary issue mocking Islam”. Crumley admitted there was “no excuse” for the attack, but made a feeble joke at the magazine’s expense, wishing it “good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring”.

Last autumn, I marched through London to protest against the Pope’s visit, walking alongside placards with slogans just as mordant as the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. There’s a crucial difference between attacking ideas and putting lives at risk; last week’s arson attack in Paris isn’t the first time Islamists have wildly over-reacted to “offensive” images in publications no one is obliged to buy, as though faith removes the basic obligation to exercise self-control and refrain from violence.

But there is a larger point here: if it isn’t possible to unequivocally condemn fire-bombing in the capital city of a secular European nation, what message does it send in countries where there is no separation between religion and state? Many Arabs are secular and they – not the Islamists who respond to satire with incoherent rage – are the people who need our solidarity and support.

The Pursued by C S Forester

A long-lost crime novel, written by CS Forester in 1935, is a skilful and chilling analysis of obsession

The Sunday Times, 6 November 2011

CS Forester is best known for his adventure stories about Horatio Hornblower, a naval officer during the Napoleonic wars. But he also wrote crime fiction and The Pursued is being published for the first time, more than seven decades after the manuscript was lost.

The book is a tense psychological drama, set in the south London suburbs, which vividly reveals the limited horizons of Forester’s characters. Marjorie is married to Ted, a domestic bully, and much of her time is spent protecting her children from his temper. One evening, Marjorie returns from a rare evening out to find her pretty sister, Dot, dead on the floor, with her head in the gas oven. When a postmortem establishes that Dot was pregnant, it looks like a sad case of an unmarried woman who could not face the shame of her predicament, and her death is ruled a suicide. But Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, begin to fear Dot was murdered and a chance remark from Marjorie’s young son confirms their suspicions.

In 1935, when the novel was written, women’s lives were still dominated by men. Forester’s portrait of an abusive marriage is brutally frank, explaining why neither Marjorie nor her mother even considers approaching the police. But mild Mrs Clair secretly steps out of role, plotting the death of the man she holds responsible for the murder of her younger daughter. She turns out to be a skilled manipulator, using her unworldly lodger to create a love triangle that will become the instrument of her vengeance.

Forester’s novel is about an obsession that gradually takes over a human being, and it is all the more chilling because the rest of the characters don’t even realise they are being manipulated. The disaster that ensues seems inevitable but it is horrifying when it arrives, and the final chapters chart the poignant relationship between Mrs Clair and her remaining daughter. Four decades after his death, Forester’s lost novel reveals him as a skilled practitioner of suburban noir.

Penguin Classics £14.99/ebook £14.99

Scarlett isn’t red-faced, why should she be?

There’s nothing wrong with posing in the nude and I just wish more women felt comfortable enough with their bodies to do it

The Independent, Thursday 3 November 2011

You take some nude photos of yourself on your mobile phone. You send them to your partner, who thinks they’re fab, and that’s the end of the matter. But it isn’t, because unknown to you some snooper in Glasgow or Miami is hacking into your emails. He posts your private pictures on the internet, where they’re viewed by thousands of people who were never, ever, supposed to see them. How do you react?

Finding herself in exactly this situation, the movie star Scarlett Johansson has caused widespread astonishment by displaying not a jot of embarrassment. “I know my best angles,” she joked. Startled headline writers have described her as showing “nerve”‘ and laughing off a “scandal”, as though they had expected her to go into voluntary seclusion for a period.

Where many women would supposedly have been “mortified”, Johansson has taken a quite opposite course and posed for the cover of Vanity Fair, wearing a wasp-waisted (and mostly undone) ball gown. Inside, she gives her verdict on Barack Obama – she’s disappointed but intends to support him again – and sounds genuinely unfazed by the theft of private images which were taken three years ago. “They were sent to my husband,” she explains in the magazine, referring to the actor Ryan Reynolds whom she divorced in July this year. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not like I was shooting a porno. Although there’s nothing wrong with that either.”

Johannson’s response is refreshing at a time when women are endlessly encouraged to worry about cellulite, wrinkles and the slightest evidence of ageing. True, she’s only 26 and a movie star, but women’s magazines are full of articles suggesting it’s never too early to start having “work” done and asking which actors and models are starting to show their age.

Another movie star, Demi Moore, is the current target of choice for eagle-eyed celeb-watchers, scrutinised daily for signs of strain and weight loss after the collapse of her marriage to a younger man. (Could I just mention here one headline I absolutely guarantee you’ll never see: “‘Cougar’ McCartney marries for the third time.”) Moore has never really been forgiven for posing nude for Vanity Fair when she was seven months pregnant in 1991, an image that’s since been much copied but was regarded  as breaking a significant taboo at the time.

At a moment when privacy is being invaded on a breathtaking scale, I’m delighted that Johansson isn’t blaming herself for someone else’s (alleged) bad behaviour. A 35-year-old hacker has appeared in court in California, charged with 26 counts of cyber-related crime including hacking into the emails of Johansson, Mila Kunis and Christina Aguilera;
according to the FBI, his computer hard drive contained dozens of photos of famous people with a mass of personal information.

There’s nothing wrong with posing in the nude and I just wish more women felt comfortable enough with their bodies to do it. I’ve never been tempted to pose for a nude centrefold, as a friend of mine did in the Seventies, but I’ve been photographed without clothes many times, most recently last winter. I’d be cross if the pictures appeared on the internet without my permission, but only because I think everyone is entitled to decide how much of their private selves they expose in public.

Happily, there is reason to think that Johansson’s insouciant response is part of a wider fight-back against prurience and press intrusion. For years, anyone in the public eye has had to worry about youthful indiscretions being blown up into scandals; in the summer, it seemed to be on the verge of happening to the Tory MP Louise Mensch, who was contacted by journalists who claimed to know that she had taken drugs, got drunk and danced with the violinist Nigel Kennedy while she worked for the record company EMI. Mensch published her reply, which made her sound a great deal more human than her accusers: “Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable… since I was in my twenties, I’m sure it was not the only
incident of the kind; we all do idiotic things when young”. Mensch emerged from the episode with her reputation enhanced when Kennedy fondly recalled “having some great times with my beautiful and very clever right-wing friend when she was at EMI”.

Against the still-unfolding scandal of phone hacking, it’s becoming clear that for far too long the arbiters of what should be considered damaging have been precisely the wrong people. The popular press has mistaken prurience for morality, and intrusion for transparency, while clinging to a set of ideas about human behaviour that belong in the Fifties. Yesterday, a British newspaper described Johansson as a “busty beauty” who has “bounced back from her nude pictures scandal”. I think I know who’s got a problem with nudity – and it certainly isn’t Scarlett Johannsson.