Phone hacking: don’t let them fool you, most victims were ordinary people
It has become routine: another batch of phone hacking victims win compensation from a newspaper and the story is reported (where it is reported at all) as if only celebrities were involved.
This may be deliberate or it may just be lazy, but it is certainly misleading. And it misleads in a way that tends to let powerful, high-profile newspaper organisations off lightly for their disgraceful illegal activities.
By implication those being compensated are successful, famous and already well-off, so all that is happening is that they are getting a nice cash top-up from news organisations that overstepped the mark. In other words: there is nothing here to be outraged about.
That is wrong. There is plenty to be outraged about.
For one thing the likelihood is that for every one hacking victim you might have heard of there were probably three more who were ordinary citizens – not rich, not famous, just people like you. Because of some connection they had or some misfortune they suffered, they strayed into the cross-hairs of unscrupulous newspapers.
And precisely because they are unknown, most will never get a penny in compensation. In fact they will probably never even know that their personal communications were tapped into by national newspapers and that to this day total strangers may know their intimate secrets.
Meanwhile the newspaper groups responsible, and the other papers that are so suspiciously keen to cover all this up, are desperately fighting to prevent part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry from establishing who was really responsible for hacking and how far it really went.
So far, we know that four newspapers hacked: the News of the World, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People. Civil cases are also outstanding against the Sun. That’s quite a tally for something once dismissed as the work of ‘one rogue reporter’, and other titles may yet follow.
Of these cases, we know most about the first because it was the best documented, and research by the Media Standards Trust has shown that 69 per cent of the victims of the News of the World hackers were what it called ‘non-public’. That is more than two out of three.
And the remaining 31 per cent were not all celebrities, because the MST’s definition of ‘public’ victims included journalists, police officers, politicians and others, most of whom are not famous. Overall, it seems fair to conclude that at least three out of four victims were not celebrities.
So who were they? Most were related to, worked with, dated or just knew somebody who was a primary target for hacking. To give an example of how far that could remove them from celebrity status, one person who was hacked was the small-town parish priest of the mother of a famous person. (Yes, they hacked a priest’s phone.)
In almost one in ten cases, the victims were people who suffered tragedy. They were bereaved families, people who had been caught up in terrorist outrages – people, in short, at their most distressed and vulnerable. Think of the Dowlers.
The full analysis by the Media Standards Trust makes for shocking reading and is another compelling reason why Leveson part 2, always envisaged since 2011 but now stalled by Theresa May's government, must go ahead.
Meanwhile the injustices continue. Since there is every reason to assume that the Mirror group newspapers now paying compensation for phone hacking behaved in exactly the same way as the News of the World, we can say that probably around three-quarters of their victims were ordinary people.
However, because the records of Mirror hackers are far more fragmentary, most of these victims can’t now be identified and so they can’t sue. It happens to be more practical for prominent people to find the necessary proof, which is why every batch of winners includes famous names (though they always include others).
It may suit the Murdoch press, the Mirror group and the other papers that want the whole phone hacking scandal forgotten or ignored to pretend that it was ‘just’ about celebrities. But it is not, and it never was.