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Sunday 4 December 2011

Harrowing stories of cruel hounding and trial by media

Ruth Dudley Edwards has been listening to both victims and journalists at the Levenson Inquiry

I had expected Alastair Campbell to be the star of last week's hearings before the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British media, but he was relegated almost to the chorus-line. Of course he was articulate and pugnacious, and he shows contempt as stylishly as any Regency buck just by a curl of the lip, but in truth it was impossible to listen for long to such a sanitised and pious account of his time as a journalist or his dealings with the press from his Downing Street power-base.

On Friday, Ian Kirby, formerly an assistant editor at the now defunct News of the World, put the boot in for the sceptics: "Was this the Alastair who invented the 'fact' that Sir John Major wore his shirt tucked in his underpants? Was this the Alastair who hinted to me and other Sunday Lobby journalists that Peter Mandelson may have been mentally unbalanced during his second resignation? Or the same Alastair who encouraged Andy Coulson and me to ask Tony and Cherie Blair if they were members of the Mile High Club, knowing it would make a fantastic headline in the News of the World just before the 2001 General Election?"

Like many other decent tabloid journalists, Kirby is incensed at being lumped together with those who disgraced their profession. There will be time for a considered defence of the tabloid press, but just for now, it's the stories of the victims that still rightly dominate proceedings.

In December 2010, Christopher Jeffries was a retired English teacher who had taught in Bristol's Clifton College for 34 years and was also the landlord of Jo Yeates when she was found murdered. Long-haired, unmarried and cultured, he was natural tabloid prey once taken in by the police for questioning. On no evidence, he was monstered as 'strange', 'creepy', 'weird', 'nutty' and 'posh' and after his release without charge, was on the run from paparazzi and hacks until Jo Yeates's neighbour -- Vincent Tabak, a respectable young Dutch engineer with a nice girlfriend -- admitted he had killed her. Jeffries has made plenty from libel suits but feels he can never escape the effects of all the smears and innuendos.

Like Jeffries, Charlotte Church voluntarily gave evidence in the hope of checking future press excesses. She's an intelligent woman made tough by events, but her stories make one wonder how she has survived. When she was an 11-year-old child in Cardiff, her record company introduced her to the world as 'The Voice of an Angel', which encouraged the press to pursue her relentlessly in the hope of seeing her fall from grace. At 13, her management persuaded her to sing in New York at Rupert Murdoch's third wedding and to waive the £100,000 fee in exchange for being treated kindly by his newspapers.

Instead, Charlotte, her family and her friends were hounded cruelly. Every teenage excess was milked for the fallen-angel angle, and the Sun featured a countdown clock to her 16th birthday carrying heavy innuendo about that being the age of consent. Stories were routinely fabricated, a young unemployed ex-boyfriend was given a fortune to spill the beans on their sexual relationship and the coverage of her father's affair ('love-rat in cocaine and three- in-a-bed orgies') led to her vulnerable mother's attempted suicide. Charlotte was in favour of a free press, but would it not be more in the public interest to investigate media bigwigs than people like her, she wondered.

Incensed by the treatment of Princess Diana and Elton John, the TV presenter Anne Diamond once asked Rupert Murdoch how he slept at night knowing he ruined people's lives. He was displeased and indicated that to his editors. Years of intrusive, hostile and misleading coverage followed: the nadir was her being told when she was in labour that a Sun journalist had been found in the corridors impersonating a doctor.

But last week's star turn was Paul McMullan, formerly of the News of the World, the pantomime villain, who used that argument beloved of totalitarians everywhere: no one with a clear conscience has anything to fear. "Privacy is for paedos. No one else needs it. Privacy is evil." He regretted rien, except his exclusive on Jennifer, daughter of the famous actor Denholm Elliott. When she hanged herself, he felt slightly bad at having been the first to out her as a drug addict begging in Northern London. In his view, though, the public were judge and jury, and if they went on buying the dirt, that meant it was in the public interest.

McMullan, who had been summoned to give evidence, merrily agreed that hacking, blagging and all sorts of other dodgy practices were the norm among his kind. No one could accuse him of hypocrisy. Alastair Campbell he ain't.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards