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Tuesday, November 22, 2011 

Ah, Leveson.

And so, inevitably, to the Leveson inquiry. It would be nice to report that my fear of last week, that the whole thing would turn into a circus dominated by celebrities rather than the "ordinary" victims of a press that doesn't know when to stop was unfounded, and that in fact, the first two days of this week's hearings had been a wonderful opportunity for those who have never had a right to reply to get their say on their treatment at the hands of the media.

Nice, but it would be almost completely at odds with the reality of the last 48 hours. The overall picture isn't helped when the Guardian, of all papers, led not with the terribly, heartbreakingly sad testimony of the Dowlers or even the methodical, dispassionate evidence from the lawyer Graham Shear which so effortlessly nails the tabloid modus operandi, but rather with a piece by Michael White on Hugh Grant. Grant is undoubtedly going to be the star, unless JK Rowling or Charlotte Church come out with something both revelatory and extraordinary when they appear on Thursday and next Monday respectively, and that is exactly what's wrong with the entire way the inquiry has been set-up.

Grant is after all not in any real sense a victim of the press. He has had, as his witness statements to the inquiry set out (his are incidentally the lengthiest so far) a few battles with the media, winning each time, the worst of which involved the publishing of strictly confidential and private medical details. Instead, as he freely admits, he's put himself up as one of those prepared to speak out and risk the backlash, this well-known face pushing for much-needed reform. Very laudatory, it's true; or at least it would have been had he also not known that a girlfriend was having his baby. As hopefully this blog has demonstrated, I'm as liberal on sexual matters as someone who doesn't get very much generally is: even I though think it's slightly odd the way in which Grant regarded his relationship with Tinglan Hong. Despite describing it as "fleeting", it's clear that it wasn't. Having lied to the press about it, or told them as little as possible, it's not very surprising the way in which they've responded, even if you can't condone it: it's always the original lie that sets the pack running. 51-year-old world-famous actor makes a woman 20 years his junior pregnant and then seems thoroughly nonplussed, even detached about it is a story in any country, regardless of its privacy laws.

Why Grant then put himself into the position where he in effect represented the Hacked Off campaign when all this was going to come out is a question only he can answer. What it certainly has done is damaged both him, his cause and even potentially the inquiry as a whole. All the more reason to be even more careful in both his statement and evidence. Instead he pointed the finger at the Mail on Sunday, implying that an article linking him with an non-existent woman to the detriment of his current relationship was obtained via phone hacking. While I find it inconceivable that the News of the World was the only tabloid involved in phone hacking when the others would have been pulling out all the stops to one-up and follow the exclusives of their rivals regardless of the means involved, it seems unlikely in this case for the reason that it happened so close in proximity to Goodman and Mulcaire going to prison. Following their conviction there was an definite chilling effect, even if it didn't last for long. This isn't to say it isn't possibly the fruit of phone-hacking, or a journalist ignoring orders from the editor but there are always other sources of such information.

Another part of today was then dedicated to the Grant show, with the Mail's representative strenuously denying the claim, demanding the right of reply denied to so many of those slighted or worse by the paper, and Leveson himself wondering aloud exactly what the paper meant by "mendacious". By comparison with Grant, Steve Coogan's subsequent appearance was how you would have hoped those "willing to speak out" had gone about doing it. While he has and continues to occasionally enter into slight hyperbole, such as describing some of the actions of those who targeted him "sociopathic", his general account of just how they operate, through blackmail and making it clear that if you try to do anything about it then they'll just come for you with even more vigour next time is invaluable. He also, unlike Grant, has a real grievance: the Mail's (false) claim that he was in some way responsible for Owen Wilson's suicide attempt is just about as despicable as it gets, and naturally, despite winning damages as a result, it's still up on the Mail's website.

Thankfully, Leveson's true role in finally giving those truly wronged a voice was also demonstrated today. I doubt that many before the hearing knew or could remember the case of the murdered 16-year-old Scottish schoolgirl Diane Watson, killed during morning recess by fellow pupil Barbara Glover in 1991. The following year the Watsons' son Alan killed himself, found clutching copies of articles which the family felt had traduced their daughter's name. The witness statements do not contain the two articles in the Glasgow Herald (they are summarised somewhat here) or the one in Marie Clare that the couple more than understandably believed contributed to their son's death, so it's difficult to judge just how far Jack McLean went in portraying "Diane as the aggressor and Barbara Glover as the victim", but it's more than apparent that he did get key facts wrong about the case, and that these were never adequately addressed. Less clear cut is the role of Marie Clare, where the journalist responsible Meg Henderson had changed the names of those she was writing about, obviously not enough for those intimately involved to see through them, but certainly enough for most members of the public to not recognise the actual case. They did at least eventually apologise, although not to the satisfaction of the Watsons. Nothing similar was forthcoming from the Herald.

Equally affecting, if not wholly because of the role of the media, was the evidence from Mary-Ellen Field. As well as being the victim of Glenn Mulcaire, she also endured the incredible cruelty dealt out by Elle Macpherson. Believing Field was the one leaking information to the media on her, Macpherson laid down an ultimatum accepted by Field's employers Chiltern: either she attend the Meadows clinic in Arizona (one of those wonderful rehab centres that double as unbelievably expensive psychiatric hospitals) for the "alcoholism" which had led to her talking to the press, or Macpherson and Chiltern would both fire her. Having managed to convince the experts there that she was not an alcoholic, something which took a month, she nonetheless was still dumped by Macpherson (partially for being "ungrateful" for the "help" she'd provided) and then sacked from her job. Her efforts to clear her name once Mulcaire was convicted of hacking Macpherson's phone came to nothing, despite contacting the police.

All of this has been somewhat swept down the reports by Grant's histronics and the understandable allure of Coogan today. Also gone relatively unnoticed is the further information from the Dowlers of what happened when they met Rupert Murdoch, who just held his in his hands and apologised, or the letter they received from Rebekah Brooks, who not only didn't take responsibility for the hacking which took place under her editorship, something that Coulson has at least done repeatedly, but also didn't fully accept it had happened, which seems bizarre considering the police are certain it did, even if Mulcaire is now denying that he personally deleted the messages from Milly's voicemail account.

Some of this could have been avoided had the witnesses had been called in something resembling a better order. Whether it was down to the intervention of the press themselves or simply not fully thought through, each day so far scheduled combines well-known celebrities alongside those who came into contact with the press for very different reasons, with the possible exception of tomorrow where the most well-known other than Gerry McCann is Sheryl Gascoigne. JK Rowling, Sienna Miller and Max Mosley are all up on Thursday, while Charlotte Church and Anne Diamond seem bound to command attention over Chris Jeffries on Monday. Why there could not be two, or even three groups, with celebs, lawyers and journalists, and everyone else going through over one or two days is difficult to fathom.

If we shouldn't judge a long inquiry by how it starts, then it still remains the fact that the most attention to it will be paid at the beginning. Celebrities are always going to be a draw, but they shouldn't be allowed to overwhelm the evidence of the others. That has been exactly what has happened so far, and it's the fault of all those involved with the exception of those who've truly suffered at the hands of the tabloids.

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