The victims of press abuses are usually ordinary people, not famous ones, and those ordinary people are usually powerless. That is why, when the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, sues the Mail on Sunday, and her husband Prince Harry complains of a campaign of fabrications against her, it matters to everyone.
Our national press is serially and industrially dishonest and cruel and the people who run it have engineered a world in which they are almost never held accountable for what they do. So, when anyone stands up to them it is good news.
It was good news that the former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas publicly refused to be blackmailed about his HIV status by a national newspaper. It was good news that England cricketer Ben Stokes publicly denounced the cruel intrusion into his family’s private life by the Sun. It was good news that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution publicly rejected the dishonest reporting of its overseas activities by The Times.
And it is also good news that this royal couple – who are victims of intrusion, lies and racism on a scale few of us could imagine living with – are challenging the Mail on Sunday in the courts.
Make no mistake, you could be next. No matter how blameless and humdrum your life may seem, you could find yourself in the crosshairs of these newspapers tomorrow. You might be a victim of crime or find yourself connected with tragedy; you might meet or know someone who suddenly experiences fame; you might belong to a minority that the newspapers take against; or some aspect of your life might catch the eye of a reporter who is prepared to distort it into something grotesque.
The best evidence we have on who the victims are comes from the phone hacking scandal, which resulted in the end of the News of the World. As the Media Standards Trust report on phone hacking [pdf] shows, two thirds of those who were hacked were not public figures in any way. The national newspapers routinely trash the lives of ordinary people, and they do it because they know that they can get away with it.
If rich and famous people do not take them on, nobody will. And you will never be told about press abuses because these newspapers cover-up for each other. And so there will never be change.
Just a few years ago, when the then Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the phone hacking scandal, he promised change. That Inquiry recommended workable solutions that carefully protected the freedom of journalists to do the job that makes them valuable to society.
It recommended effective, totally independent regulation, holding newspapers to a code of conduct that protected the innocent from abuse, and was backed by serious sanctions when things go wrong. There was to be low-cost, binding arbitration, giving both the public and the newspapers a means of settling legal cases that did not involve astronomical costs.
But, Cameron and his successor Theresa May sabotaged those solutions at the behest of their friends in the press – and the number of victims of their actions is now beyond counting.
The only affordable recourse for the public today is a toothless complaints body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), designed by the press itself in defiance of the Leveson Inquiry’s recommendations and now to be chaired by a former Conservative minister who was, until almost the day of his appointment, a working party politician.
Just how ineffective IPSO is and, at the same time just how fed-up Prince Harry and Meghan Markle must be, was laid bare in a ruling delivered only days ago in which the royal couple sought a front-page correction for a front-page story in the Sun – a story which the Sun itself admitted was wrong. IPSO refused, siding with the newspaper and allowing it to bury its correction on page two.
Change is vital, and one thing will bring change: Leveson 2. Part two of the inquiry was supposed to look at the culture of criminality and cover-up in the press and determine who was responsible. Also in its remit, inevitably, would be a review of what has happened to regulation and to press conduct since the first part of the inquiry.
Though Theresa May and then Culture Minister Matt Hancock cancelled it, it remains open to the House of Commons to launch Leveson 2 at any time. Only the Conservatives and the DUP oppose it and they no longer have a majority. And, bear in mind, that at the time of its cancellation, polls showed that 84% of the public who expressed a view wanted the inquiry to go ahead.
Unless and until Leveson 2 is triggered, however, the most effective check on press abuses – and the one which flushes those abuses into the open and shows the public what it’s like when the newspapers do their worst – is when people who have the means to do so, royal or otherwise, stand up to them.
This article was originally published in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks.