Module One of the judge led Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press following the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World, took evidence in Module One of the relationship between the press and the public. The list of core participants, many of whom gave oral evidence at the inquiry for this module read like a roll-call from British public life, including celebrities such as the singer Charlotte Church and the actor Hugh Grant, as well as more private individuals affected deeply by press intrusion, including the McCann family and Christopher Jefferies, who was arrested in connection with the murder of Joanna Yates, and later released without charge. A number of politicians and police officers also gave evidence.
The organisation Inclusion London, along with 10 disabled peoples' organisations and individuals (including me and my friend and former colleague, the journalist John Pring), also submitted evidence to be considered in Module One - about the way in which the press writes about disabled people, particularly recently during the war on words regarding the reform of disability benefits. (The NUJ is also submitting evidence on this.)
We sat back and waited - hoping that at least one organisation would be called to give oral evidence about the effect that some inaccurate and unbalanced reporting of disability benefits was having on individual disabled people on the streets and in their homes. We were given to understand that it would either be dealt with in Module One or on Module Four on Regulation - or both. One organisation eventually contacted Leveson this week to see if there was any progress and was told that all our evidence had been considered - but was not considered important enough to deserve oral session. This is despite the evidence about the effect of such drip-feeding of lies, damn lies and statistics (a recent study has demonstrated that due to such reporting, the public now believes that between 50-75% of disability benefit claims are fraudulent, when the government's own figures estimate it as less than 1%)
Why? Why is it not important when disabled individuals are attacked in the street, partly because of pernicious stories put about by newspapers? Why is wheelchair user Peter Greener's experience of three months of harassment because his neighbour had once seen him walking and branded him a scrounger not important? I believe that journalists, including myself, have a responsibility to report accurately and, crucially, to contextualise. I believe that some journalists are over-hyping the extent of disability benefit fraud and are getting away with it while disabled people are paying the price.
I believe that Lord Justice Leveson, and his tax-payer funded inquiry, should do something about it. This inquiry should not merely hear the famous victims of newspaper harassment, or those who have become famous, unwillingly and in great pain, because of individual tragedy. This inquiry should also hear those silenced and fearful voices from a whole community which is trying to speak out - of the disabled victims who just make it into the local newspapers because they have been tipped out of their wheelchairs or shouted at in the street because of irresponsible newspaper reporting using the dangerous rhetoric of "scroungers" and other pernicious untruths. Leveson owes it to those individuals, who are not famous, who won't necessarily make the headlines, but who deserve justice, to hear their stories - to honour their pain, and to question those reporters who are, at least, partly responsible.
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