Hollywood stars and other high-profile figures will try to turn the tables on Britain’s celebrity-obsessed press this week when they put newspapers under the spotlight at a public inquiry into media standards.
The likes of “Notting Hill” actor Hugh Grant will join parents of murder victims to spell out how they and their families have suffered from a ruthless hunt for stories to boost flagging paper sales and sate a public’s clamour for gossip about the rich and famous.
From a phone-hacking scandal which has engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire to the use of “chequebook journalism,” the tactics of Britain’s notoriously aggressive press will be exposed in detail, Reuters reports.
Stewart Purvis, professor of television journalism at London’s City University said it would be “a trial of the British popular press.”
“What we’re going to hear next week are almost the prosecution witnesses. It’s going to be very powerful television,” he told Sky News.
Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry in July after revelations that journalists from the News of the World, part of Murdoch’s British stable, had hacked the phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler who was later found murdered.
Dowler’s parents, who were also hacked, will be the first to give evidence Monday. Grant, actress Sienna Miller and “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling will be among those appearing this week.
Last Wednesday, the lawyer representing 51 clients who say they have suffered at the hands of the press delivered a withering critique of newspapers which he said had resorted to unacceptable, “tawdry” tactics to find exclusives.
Three of those he represents say they believed papers’ hounding had contributed to family members committing suicide or attempting to kill themselves.
“When people talk of public interest in exposing the private lives of well-known people or those close to them, this is the real, brutally real impact which this kind of journalism has,” lawyer David Sherborne said.
All were targeted to get stories to make money for the papers, he told the inquiry. “That’s why it was done: to sell newspapers. Not to detect crime or to expose wrongdoing, not to protect society or for the public good.”
Most of the focus of the inquiry so far has fallen on News International, the British arm of News Corp, whose lawyer has admitted that phone-hacking was widespread until 2007, when one reporter was jailed, and possibly beyond.
ALL PAPERS IN THE DOCK
However, Sherborne has made it clear that it is all papers’ activities that deserve to be scrutinised and reformed.
The inquiry, headed by senior judge Brian Leveson and due to last a year, will make recommendations that could have a lasting impact on the industry, lead to tighter media rules or at least an overhaul of the current system of self-regulation.
Lawyers for Britain’s major newspaper groups have already pleaded for the essence of that system to remain and said that the press actually needed more freedom to expose wrongdoing.
“I want this inquiry to mean something,” Leveson said. “I am … very concerned that it should not simply form a footnote in some professor of journalism’s analysis of the history of the 21st century while it gathers dust.”
Central to discussions will be what constitutes public interest, and whether paying for so-called “kiss and tell” stories about well-known figures private and sex lives could be justified.
Sherborne said the majority of Britons saw no reason for phone-hacking or similar “what is called news-gathering.”
“What the public are interested in, in the first sense, sells more newspapers: celebrity gossip, generally tittle-tattle,” he said. “What the public have a genuine interest in knowing about: drug trials, what goes on in Europe with the Central Bank and so on, mostly doesn’t.”
Others appearing this week will be the ex-wife of England soccer player Paul Gascoigne; Mary-Ellen Field, the former business adviser of supermodel Elle Macpherson; actor and comedian Steve Coogan, and former Formula One chief Max Mosley.
Singer Charlotte Church will appear next week detailing how her mother attempted suicide after her father’s affair was exposed.