UK media inquiry a lesson in tabloid skullduggery
LONDON (AP) -- Hacking into celebrity phones was just the sleazy tip of the iceberg.
Britain's media ethics inquiry, set up in response to illegal eavesdropping by a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, has turned out to be a masterclass in skullduggery that has exposed the murky practices of the country's muckraking press.
This week, witnesses described how Murdoch's company had destroyed their lives and that of their families, with reporters targeting critics for spying and negative coverage, and sullying the name of an innocent man.
"We have a press that has just become frankly putrid in many of its elements," Alastair Campbell, former tabloid journalist and longtime communications aide to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the tribunal this week.
Few would disagree after listening to the nationally televised testimony describing the excesses of a callous, sometimes criminal, press.
The judge-led inquiry was set up after it emerged that Murdoch's News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voicemail messages of celebrities, public figures and crime victims. The scandal forced Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid. It has also seen a dozen Murdoch employees arrested and cost the jobs of several of his top executives, two senior police officers and Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief.
The inquiry has put Murdoch's empire on trial, as witnesses described their treatment at the hands of an organization they viewed as unassailably powerful, ruthless and feared.
Former child singing sensation Charlotte Church described how she was invited to perform at Murdoch's wedding on a yacht in New York when she was 13.
She was offered a 100,000 pound (roughly $160,000) payment, but was told if she waived the fee Murdoch's papers would look favorably on her.
Church, now 25, told the inquiry that she really wanted to take the money, but was told by her managers that it would be worthwhile to give up the fee — which would have been her highest payment ever at that point in her career — to cultivate Murdoch's support.
She said she was told "that he was a very, very powerful man" who could do her career a world of good — if he wanted to.
But any tabloid goodwill she earned was short-lived. Church said media scrutiny increased to unbearable levels as she entered her teens. As she approached her 16th birthday, she said the press featured a "countdown clock" to the day when she would be able to legally have sex.
Later, a tabloid reported that Church was pregnant before she had even told her parents, which she felt had to come reporters hacking into her phone. On another occasion the News of the World reported on her father's extramarital affair under the headline "Church's three in a bed cocaine shock." Church said her mother had attempted suicide partly as a result of this invasion of privacy.
Murdoch's News International has denied Church's version of events surrounding her performance at Murdoch's wedding, and her agent at the time, Jonathan Shalit, also denied she was offered a choice between a fee and good press.
He said she was not offered a fee and performed for free, as she had done for Prince Charles and President Bill Clinton. But he said publicity from these appearances helped launch her career in the United States, which was his plan.
"When you sing for these people is you get added benefits for your career," he said.
Church was one of a slew of celebrities, including actor Hugh Grant, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling and actress Sienna Miller, who have sat in the witness box at London's Royal Courts of Justice and described stakeouts and snatched photos, leaked medical details and midnight pursuits — all justified, in the tabloids' eyes, because the people they were pursuing were famous.
Ian Hargreaves, professor of digital economy and former director of the journalism school at the University of Cardiff, said the hearings have had a profound impact on the public psyche — and on Britain's political class — by revealing so much about how one portion of British press works.
"It's been a process of revelation, based on firsthand testimony," he said. "A lot of journalists feel it has been one-sided, but processes that have been known about and talked about in private are suddenly being talked about on a big public stage."
Hearings continue into the new year, and justice Brian Leveson and his panel hope to issue a report by late 2012 that could recommend major changes to Britain's system of media self-regulation.
So far, the most strident defense of tabloids — and the week's most jaw-dropping testimony — came from unrepentant former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan. He described chasing celebrities' cars as "good fun," called phone hacking "a perfectly acceptable tool" of the trade and dismissed privacy as "the space bad people need to do bad things in."
He also said celebrities should stop complaining and be grateful for the attention of paparazzi.
The inquiry has also shown that it's not just celebrities who find themselves in the tabloids' sights. The parents of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, who was abducted and murdered in 2002, described how the News of the World's hacking of Milly's phone, and the deletion of voicemail messages, had given them false hope that their daughter was still alive.
This week Christopher Jefferies, a retired teacher arrested on suspicion of murder in a high-profile case a year ago, described how his life had been wrecked by "smears, innuendo and complete fiction" in articles that painted him as a voyeuristic eccentric, or worse.
Jefferies was released without charge, and another man has been convicted of the killing. Jefferies successfully sued eight newspapers — including Murdoch's The Sun tabloid — for libel, but said he would "never fully recover from the events of the last year."
"There will always be people who don't know me who will retain the impression that I'm some sort of weird character who is probably best avoided," he said.
The inquiry has also heard claims the Murdoch empire used negative articles and even espionage against its critics. Former TV host Anne Diamond recounted how she had asked Murdoch during a 1980s interview "how could he sleep at night" knowing his newspapers ruined people's lives.
She said after that "there were consistent negative stories about me in Mr. Murdoch's newspapers."
One glaring example was a story in The Sun headlined "Anne Diamond killed my father," about a fatal road accident she had been involved in years before. The same newspaper took pictures of Diamond carrying the coffin of her infant son at his funeral, despite her plea for the press to stay away out of respect for the family's grief.
Mark Lewis, a lawyer who has represented high-profile hacking victims, testified that he was put under surveillance by a private investigator working for Murdoch's News International. The surveillance, apparently in search of material to discredit him, included following and filming his 14-year-old daughter.
"That was truly horrific, that my daughter was videoed, was followed by a detective with a camera," Lewis said. "That shouldn't happen to anybody's child."
Associated Press writer Robert Barr contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless
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