Are legal curbs the answer for Britain's errant newspapers?
Lord Justice Leveson is set to deliver his verdict on phone hacking. As politicians and journalists prepare for a battle over possible state regulation of the press, Jacqui Hames, the former Crimewatch presenter and hacking victim, debates the issues with Observer writer Nick Cohen
I'll start with a bit of background. I'm best known for my stint on Crimewatch, between 1990 and 2006, but my police career started in 1977. I joined the Met at 18 and worked my way up through the ranks, serving as a detective constable until I took early retirement in 2008.
I gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry because in 2002 I was placed under surveillance by the News of the World. Up to that point my experience of the press was generally positive. On Crimewatch I experienced first hand the enormous benefits of working with the media to solve crime. That's not to say there weren't times when the different agendas conflicted, but that has to be expected.
That was all about to change. My then husband, a detective chief superintendent, appeared on Crimewatch to appeal for information in an unsolved murder. It was a gruesome case: a man killed with an axe outside a south London pub.
Soon after the broadcast, the Met received intelligence that suspects in the case intended to make life difficult for my husband. The Met took the threat so seriously we were placed under the umbrella of the witness protection unit.
Then Crimewatch was sent an email suggesting that I was having an affair. Strangers phoned my work, attempting to obtain my home address. Two vans stationed outside our house followed my husband taking the children to school. We feared we were being stalked by the people responsible for the murder. We took our house off the market and warned our daughter's headteacher of the risks of strangers hanging around the school. I became very distressed and anxious. The stress that we endured over the subsequent years contributed to the breakdown of our marriage.
The two vans were eventually traced back to the News of the World. The Met sought an explanation from Rebekah Brooks [then Wade, editor of News of the World] and her answer was simply unbelievable. She said that they were investigating suspicions that my husband and I were having an affair with each other. We had by then been married for four years, together for 11 and had two children. Our marriage was public knowledge.
My suspicion remains that the real reason for the surveillance was that suspects in the murder inquiry were using their associations with News of the World to try to intimidate us and undermine the investigation.
In 2011 officers from Operation Weeting informed me that private information, including home addresses and phone numbers, had been found in [private investigator] Glenn Mulcaire's notebooks. The dates on the entries suggest that our phones were being hacked around the same time as the other surveillance. You only have to listen to the stories coming out of the inquiry to know that this kind of harassment wasn't restricted to the News of the World. It was widespread across the industry. There was a work ethic that led some of the papers to behave as if the law did not apply to them – and they got away with it because of self-regulation.
What I hope to see coming out of Leveson is independent regulation, backed up by statute, that has genuine repercussions for anyone who starts to play fast and loose with the system.
I and other victims of press harassment expect nothing less.
I hold no brief for the News of the World. Largely worthless journalists wrote about invariably trashy celebrities for wholly prurient readers. I do not think I read it more than a couple of times, and always regretted it when I did.
But you expose the central problem in your argument when you say that detectives from Operating Weeting have investigated your case. Of course they have. Phone hacking, like bribing police officers, is against the law of the land; a law that applies equally to everyone. You want a parallel legal system: statutory regulation of one selected group of people, and one only, "the press".
(And incidentally, Jacqui, I give you fair warning, I will be tearing into the dangers of attempting to define what is "the press" and who is "a journalist" in the age of the web later).
For the moment, I could get on my high horse. I could remind you of the long tradition of English liberty you are so casually tossing aside. I could quote John Milton, who cried, "give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties" when politicians tried statutory regulation of the press of the 1640s. But let me stick with a more boring problem.
How on earth is your statutory regulator going to work?
I have nothing but sympathy for you and your then-husband, and nothing but contempt for the hacks who harassed you. But to stop them you would need investigators with the power to seize computers and cross-examine witnesses under oath. You would need a regulator who could hear the case against them fairly. And that regulator would need assessors to make sure defendants were treated as innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, you would need a well-resourced police force with subpoena powers and a competent judge and jury.
No regulator can give you that. In your heart, you must know this. You and every other alleged victim of the hacking scandal expects the police to bring alleged perpetrators to justice and for the case against the alleged criminals to be held in open court.
Leaving all the dangers of political control of the media aside, dangers that should worry you as a former television presenter, statutory regulation is an absurd response to the hacking scandal. It's like demanding that the British Medical Association investigate allegations that Harold Shipman was murdering patients in Hyde, rather than the Greater Manchester police. The regulator could not do that. The police could and did.
Best wishes, Nick
Have you paused to ask yourself why my case wasn't properly dealt with? Laws were broken, but I believe that the reason nobody did anything was the power and culture of the press.
Anyway, my case was one of many. And how did the press get to be above the law? Because of the failures of politicians and also because it is unaccountable. Editors and owners made themselves the regulator, which even they now admit was never in fact a regulator, and behind that fig leaf they got used to doing what ever they wanted.
By the way, I don't want statutory regulation, just effective regulation, but I am realistic enough to know that, if a regulator is to have any teeth, it may need some underpinning in statute. And at the BBC I had experience of statutory regulation: it doesn't seem to have made Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys into pawns of the politicians.
Contrary to what you say, lots of bodies are regulated, and a good thing too. Most people reading this simply won't recognise the idea that the press is so special it can't be safely regulated by a body that is independent of both the politicians and the industry itself.
If the press had not disgraced itself with hacking, bribing, data theft, harassment and bullying, all hidden behind the cloak of a fake regulator, maybe it wouldn't be where it is now. We need change, if only to protect ordinary people from such abuses in future.
I do not share your faith in the benevolence of the authorities. Since you raised it, the BBC explains why I am wary. It is not free from political pressure. Spin doctors from all parties hound it because they know the BBC is an easy target. So easy a target, in fact, it has sacked two director generals in under a decade.
But let's cut to the real difficulty. You suggest that lots of professions are regulated, and say, well, let's regulate journalism too. But journalism has never been a profession. It was once a trade. When I started out we used to pretend that reporters were citizens with typewriters, exercising the same rights everyone enjoyed. That was a bit of lie. You could not be a journalist unless you were employed by a private or public media corporation.
If you had made your case 30 years ago, you would at least have had a respectable argument. Now you don't. Now every website can be a newspaper. Now restrictions on freedom of the press cramp everyone who blogs, tweets or posts on Facebook and YouTube. Who is your "statutorily underpinned regulator" – and how like a condemned building he sounds – going to regulate? Everyone?
But by definition a trade or profession can't include everyone. In a sinister moment, Lord Justice Leveson said in his inquiry that there would be one law for people inside his new corral for approved press. Meanwhile, citizen journalists, bloggers and "dead-tree" newspapers that upheld Britain's liberal tradition and refused to co-operate with the state would face "punitive" costs in the courts.
As I am sure you know, the United Nations condemned England's restrictions of press freedom for allowing rich men to discourage "critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest". Leveson won't tackle that. Nor will your underpinned bureaucrat.
The problems of bullying, intimidation and hacking came not from websites or bloggers, but from big newspapers. Only newspapers were well-resourced and powerful enough to get away with widespread illegality, while the authorities turned a blind eye. There is a huge difference between the reach of a global multimedia organisation such as the Daily Mail, dictating terms to the powerful, and a blogger, even a popular blogger. We don't know what Leveson will recommend, but he is bound to draw a line between large multimillion-pound organisations and small online operations.
Call it a profession, call it a trade – any job that has the potential to do harm to others needs some basic rules. Human nature is such that, if you don't have boundaries and real repercussions for people, competition will drive the kind of activity that blighted my life.
If you don't accept that, then you wouldn't have accepted the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC had basic rules of conduct, but no way to enforce its decisions. So if a newspaper proprietor didn't agree with the judgment, like a tyrannical dictator he could declare: "I refuse to recognise this court."
All I want to see is someone independent to enforce the same rules your own industry thinks are important enough to be inscribed in a code, with the backing of law if people refuse to co-operate. The alternative, more self-regulation, has turned out to be no regulation at all. What's your answer to the problem?
The web is destroying the press barons. I wouldn't worry about them. They'll be on their knees soon. You ask what I want, well, I want law reform that matches the revolution in communications technology.
The government must tackle the costs lawyers impose. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right, without it religious freedom and democratic rights to assess the powerful fail. Yet the natural born billers of the English law are an obstacle to justice. We need cheap tribunals, as they have on the continent. You should be able to sue without worrying that you need £250,000 in the bank before you go to law. Equally, a journalist, blogger or tweeter should be able to defend the truth of what he or she writes without the legal profession pricing them out of the courts.
As an English lawyer, Leveson will be the last person in the land to condemn the faults that stare him in the face. I hope I can convince you, however, that England should uphold the principle of equality before the law by having cheap and accessible means of challenging and defending contested speech. That would be so much better than a politicised quango that seeks to answer the problems of the last century by regulating a monolithic "press", which no longer exists.