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Sunday 27 November 2011

Psychopaths in the press can poison public mind

Hacking stars is foul but hounding ordinary people has had tragic consequences, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, was kind to journalists last Thursday when she gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the British phone-hacking scandal.

She didn't denounce the whole profession: "We have at one end of the spectrum people who literally risk their lives to go and expose the truth about war and famine and revolution," she said. "Then at the other end we have behaviour that is illegal and I think unjustifiably intrusive." Why, she wondered, were they "called the same name?"

If only it were that simple. Good journalists sometimes break the law in the public interest; corrupt, lazy or frightened journalists sometimes let bad people go on their wicked way unscrutinised.

Still, there wasn't much ambiguity about most of last week's evidence, which is why I was muttering 'Psychopath', when I heard of the excesses of some hacks and paparazzi. I don't myself think we have a right to know that Formula One boss Max Mosley has a penchant for consensual sadistic orgies, though it's just possible to construct a justification. But when the resultant publicity so upset his vulnerable son Alexander that he died of a drug overdose, how could anyone have thought it right to doorstep the bereaved father?

"They had no human feeling at all," he said. A lack of empathy or remorse is a definition of psychopathy, and that's what goes on at the rancid end of the journalistic spectrum.

How could paparazzi who remember what happened to Princess Diana have so tormented the 21-year-old actress Sienna Miller just because she had a loving relationship with the more famous Jude Law: "I would often find myself at midnight, running down a dark street on my own with 10 big men chasing me, but the fact that they had cameras meant it was legal." How could the News of the World have thought it OK to authorise the hacking of her phone -- which had horrible consequences for her relationship with friends and family accused by her in an increasing paranoid frame of mind of betrayal? Who thought it legitimate to doctor a photograph of her playing dead in a game with a sick child so she looked drunk?

JK Rowling has led an exemplary life, but Psychopath thought it fine to identify her home, harass her family and steal advance copies of her books. Hugh Grant hasn't complained about the publicity over his relationship with Liz Hurley or his arrest after being found with a prostitute, but who could think the press was entitled to buy or steal his medical records or 'menace' his daughter's grandmother?

But these excesses pale into insignificance compared to what happened to the ordinary people caught in terrible circumstances. False stories convinced millions that Gerry and Kate McCann had been involved in the disappearance of their missing daughter Madeleine, with one tabloid suggesting her parents had sold her into slavery to pay off their mortgage.

Psychopath camped outside their home and scared their young twins by banging on the car windows. And the News of the World 'violated' Kate when it acquired and printed a copy of a diary so private she hadn't even shown it to her husband.

And so it goes on. What could be worse than creating the circumstances that had Sally Dowler calling the phone of her missing daughter Milly (by then dead at the hands of a serial killer), realising some messages had been deleted and joyously telling her husband: "She's picked up her voicemails, Bob. She's alive"? Well, maybe it was the fabrication of lies about Diane Watson, stabbed to death in her school playground because another pupil wrongly thought she'd stolen her boyfriend. In their determination to show the victim as perpetrator and the perpetrator as victim, journalists caused Diane's brother so much heartache that he killed himself.

Like the Dowlers, until the phone-hacking scandal put the tabloid press under scrutiny, the Watsons had little satisfaction when they tried to correct the record. But now they have some hope that their daughters' horrific deaths will at least help in taming the excesses of the psychopathic press and making editors think twice before they publish unproven allegations about the dead.

In the Senate last week David Norris bizarrely claimed that the British media behave in Ireland in a way they no longer do at home, because they see Ireland as a colony. Where does that leave RTE, whose appalling treatment of Father Kevin Reynolds is on a different plane to any embarrassments caused to Senator Norris? And let us not forget how many scandals of church and state were ignored in Ireland when the press was cowed.

The truth is that a free press is vitally necessary for a healthy society, while an irresponsible press can do immense harm and poison the public mind. Lord Leveson has his work cut out.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards