I’m writing with regard to Monday’s vote on the Crime and Courts Bill.
As you may remember, I gave evidence in person to the Leveson Inquiry on 8 February last year. While I have not personally been victimised by the British press, I was giving evidence on behalf of dozens of trans and intersex people who had been. Many of them were so traumatised by their experiences that they would not allow us to include their stories in our publishable submission. Many more were so fearful that they wouldn’t even allow us to include their stories in the submission seen only by the Inquiry team.
Lord Justice Leveson devoted 4 pages of his report to my evidence, and made reference to me in a number of other places. It appears that the evidence made a strong impression on him and the Inquiry team. Indeed, when I submitted additional evidence three weeks later, the Inquiry team acknowledged it within minutes.
Why did I need to make a second submission? Because, despite what the editors were saying on oath to Lord Justice Leveson specifically about representation of trans people in their papers, they were actually doing the complete opposite. It took this second submission to halt the years of intimidation we had seen.
Sadly, within days of the Leveson Report being published, the press resumed their old tactics. I am currently aware of three issues regarding misreporting of trans people just within the last month.
I want a free press. I have said to politicians in all parties that the press should be holding you all to account. The press has to have a right to investigate corruption and double-standards wherever they exist. The freedom of the press is there to speak truth unto power, not to harass, victimise, torture and exploit the powerless.
The press must also be responsible and accountable. In its continually skewed reporting of vulnerable people, including children, against its own code of practice, we need an effective way of rectifying the balance. The law is not effective, as the barriers to initiating legal process are too costly for most people. The current PCC is not effective, as it frequently becomes a self-justification exercise by the press. We need the ability to ensure that the press doesn’t just throw up another ineffective regulator – used, as the PCC so often is, purely as a smokescreen to hide non-compliance with their own code.
Frequently the victims of the press are innocent, vulnerable, poorly-resourced people who suddenly find themselves in the public eye with no training or effective recourse to restitution or respite. Richard Peppiatt has stories of how he effectively ensnared people just so he could get a story. He is not alone. In the case of trans and intersex people, they are frequently press targets simply because they have that particular medical condition – again in direct contravention of the Editors Code of Practice.
Let us not forget that the press is effectively a series of large, in some cases multi-national, corporations. They are in the business of selling stories. The level of investigative journalism within the British press has plummeted. The high morals that the press is using to oppose regulation are rarely used by them. The press rewords and reprints stories already printed elsewhere. Journalists are under extreme pressure to keep costs down and bring revenue in. This is not some 17th century ideal of visionary people running a printing press out of a coffee shop backroom. This is all-too-frequently commercial exploitation.
I would have liked to have seen Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations underpinned by proper statute, a statute which enshrines the independence of the press. I don’t like the way the debate has become polarised between the parties, and wanted a cross-party consensus. I don’t like the feeling that we’ll be heading for an eighth inquiry into the press in a few year’s time.
John, I’m also fearful. I believed the Prime Minister when he said at the outset that this was a golden opportunity for the press to get its house in order. Given what I’ve seen in the last three months, I’m all too aware that I am now likely to be directly in the firing line for a hostile press. I’ve stood up to them. I’ve criticised them publicly. How can they not want their pound of flesh in return? The person I will blame, should this happen to me or my family, is the Prime Minister. It was he who moved away from that cross-party consensus. It is he who is letting the press off the hook.
The person who has expressed my fears most eloquently is Baroness Hollins in her speech to the House of Lords on 11 January. As she was speaking, the House fell totally silent. I quote from it, because she explains beautifully the fears I felt before giving evidence, and also the barbaric, abusive nature of the press.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke about Lord Justice Leveson’s compassion and sensitivity in enabling victims of press abuse to give evidence. I commend Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and the manner in which it was carried out. He and his staff made the experience of giving evidence somewhat easier. The decision to give evidence was not an easy one. To be honest, I felt intimidated, as I know did many other victims of press misconduct. Surprisingly perhaps, I was concerned that my words, spoken on behalf of my family, yet again would be twisted by the press.
It has been suggested to me that everything is now in the open, that all victims of press misconduct and unethical press behaviour have now been dealt with. That is so far from the truth. The majority of victims are intimidated and do not take on the powerful press barons lightly.
If any other industry was facing such public criticism and concern, the press would have been investigating that industry’s response very energetically.
The Leveson inquiry was not just about whether journalistic practice was legal or illegal. It was also about the culture and ethics of the press. I agree with my noble friend Lady Boothroyd that we need a cultural revolution in the press and in the country. I would add that the drip-drip effect of little lies and spin have contributed to the cynicism which has seeped into our daily lives.
I will give just one example from my experience. An article in one newspaper contained 28 supposed facts. It was quite a lengthy piece that went over two or three pages. It included photographs of people and places. Of those 28 facts, just two were correct. The others were fabricated and sensationalised. But this information was repeated by other journalists again and again in the same and in different newspapers. None of these journalists checked their information. They simply took it from the internet, reordered it, changed the emphasis and called it an exclusive. In my profession of medicine, that would be called plagiarism.
I repeat, “of those 28 facts, just two were correct”. These incorrect facts were then spread around the newspapers like wildfire. There was no effective way of stopping it. This is the “nobility” of the press that they are trying to justify.
When you go into the voting lobbies on Monday evening, please consider the victims (or, as Baroness Hollins put it so eloquently in her speech in the House of Lords, “expert[s] by experience”) of the press. Please vote against the government’s watered-down proposals that hand control of a proposed independent regulator back into the hands of an abusive press. Please vote for truly independent regulation, ensuring an honest press.