Press on Trial: Lawyer Puts U.K. Media in the Dock

LONDON -- A lawyer representing phone hacking victims made a stinging indictment of the entire British press Wednesday, saying the scandal goes far beyond one of Rupert Murdoch's tabloids, citing abusive treatment of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, actor Hugh Grant and others.

Speaking on the third day of a judicial inquiry into media ethics, David Sherborne said it was "the whole of the press, and in particular the tabloid section of it, which we say stands in the dock."

Sherborne said hacking victims included the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and that high-profile suicides were at least in part attributable to the country's irresponsible press. He claimed that the pervasive criminality uncovered at the News of the World "may only be just the tip of the iceberg."

Rupert Murdoch shut the News of the World in July after it became clear that employees there had intercepted voicemail messages, hacked into computers and paid police for scoops. The ensuing scandal has rocked Murdoch's empire and shaken Britain's establishment, raising uncomfortable questions about the power of the press and newspaper executives' links to top politicians and corrupt police.

Sherborne said that, after crunching the numbers from the notebooks of the News of the World's private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, he calculated that the News of the World was running as many as 10 stories a week obtained using phone hacking.

"Yes, you might say, this is one example," Sherborne said of the now-defunct paper. "(But) it is, or at least was, a highly influential one, and representative in many respects of the rest of the tabloid market."

He said that many editors were "members of the 'see no, speak no, hear no evil' brigade," accusing them of pursuing a "self-serving agenda" of deregulation.

Sherborne made an impassioned argument against the current British system of media self-regulation, saying it was "tantamount to handing the police station over to the mafia."
Lord Justice Brian Leveson seemed impressed by the argument, telling Sherborne that "there's a great deal of power behind some of things you've said."

Leveson's inquiry, ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, is widely expected to recommend the reform -- or replacement -- of Britain's Press Complaints Commission, which has been widely criticized for failing to get to grips with the scandal.

The question is: Replace it with what?

Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger argued Wednesday against what he described as "state control" of Britain's press. He suggested that a more robust form of self-regulation, backed by legislative tweaks, might be more appropriate. And he tried to get the inquiry to focus on the power of the Murdoch family over the British press.

The chief of Britain's National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, said Wednesday that newspaper ethics could benefit from a stronger union voice in the newsroom.

Sherborne, who represents 51 alleged victims of press intrusion, made clear that he was pointing the finger at other corners of the British media, firing broadsides at Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre and legendary ex-Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie.

His list of victims ran long: There was "Harry Potter" creator Rowling, who Sherborne said had fought doggedly to keep her privacy in the face of persistent stalking by paparazzi photographers. He said Rowling's children were routinely ambushed by photographers at family outings and while out on vacation and that notes had even been placed in their schoolbags.

There were the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by the News of the World in what remains one of the most horrific episodes uncovered thus far. Sherborne revealed Wednesday that the girl's parents believed that they too had been spied upon by unscrupulous newshounds.

He devoted considerable attention to the case of auto racing boss Max Mosley, whose orgy with several prostitutes was caught on tape by the tabloid. Sherborne said Mosley blamed his son's suicide at least in part on the lurid press coverage that followed his exposure.

Sherborne also gave details of the alleged harassment suffered by movie star Hugh Grant, who's been a fierce critic of Britain's tabloids and one of the leading proponents of increased regulation of the media industry.

Sherborne said that the mother of Grant's recently born child had frequently been targeted by anonymous phone calls, with one caller demanding -- in vulgar and threatening terms -- that she silence him.

Sherborne claimed that when the woman's mother recently tried to confront paparazzi photographers trailing her, one of them tried to run her over.

A clearly concerned-looking Leveson interrupted Sherborne to ask whether police had been called. Sherborne said they had, adding that an injunction had been sought against the photographers involved.

The first part of Leveson's inquiry is expected to wrap up sometime next year.