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Should we treat phone hacking victims as experts on press regulation?

2 December 2012

1:25 PM

2 December 2012

1:25 PM

Much of the response to the Leveson Inquiry has focused on the disappointment of the victims of phone hacking and other intrusions by the press that David Cameron is opposed to introducing statutory underpinning for a new system of newspaper regulation. But how much can victims tell us about how to change a system? In an article for the Spectator in May, Carol Sarler argued that it was unwise to treat victims of tragedy as universal sages. Sarler pointed to the way Sara Payne and Denise Fergus were often called to back certain laws in an ‘automatic elevation of “victim” to “expert”‘. She wrote:

It really is no surprise to learn that Sara Payne favours restrictions to keep online pornography away from children. There cannot, after all, be a sentient adult who would not prefer our babies to spend more time with Peppa Pig than with Swedish Dolls. But although you and I might think that internet service providers should stick their greed where the sign don’t shine, our thoughts would not make headlines like last week’s: ‘Sara Payne backs call to block online porn’ — headlines which, given a moment’s thought, can only invite the question, well, so what?

This is a woman who knows a great deal more than we do about things that we must pray we never know better. The anguish when her eight-year-old daughter Sarah was abducted and killed, in 2000, is beyond our paltry imaginings, while her subsequent stoicism — surviving, as it has, a broken marriage and a debilitating stroke — puts to shame our own feeble whimpers. Nevertheless, I’ll wager that she knows no more than any other amateur about pre-pubescent synapses, the cause and effect of commercially sexual filth — or, come to that, about anything much concerning the various campaigns that she has been asked to ‘back’ or ‘call for’ since Sarah’s death.

It might perhaps afford Mrs Payne some small comfort to be so used (she probably calls it ‘useful’), and about that we mustn’t carp. It is not, however, Sarah’s personal tragedy that her mother’s high profile represents: it is just an example of a peculiar trend which promotes the automatic elevation of ‘victim’ to ‘expert’.

Also last week we heard from Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger who was murdered by two other children in 1993. This time she was quoted on ‘sickos’ who enjoy ‘trolling’ — the posting of inflammatory messages on internet sites, a nasty practice with which, to be fair, she has been fleetingly targeted. But this is only one among many contributions Mrs Fergus has made to national debate and always, again, without knowledge or qualification. She waded in recently, for instance, when the Children’s Commissioner for England presented a well-researched, if controversial, opinion that the criminal age of responsibility should be raised from ten to 12.

Mrs Fergus didn’t like this. Well, of course she didn’t like it; her son was killed by ten-year-olds, and even now she has close supporters who have openly vowed that if they could get their hands on them they would ‘see justice done’. But that is precisely why we have the social contract of law and order, whereby we remove the machinery of justice from those emotionally unequipped to handle it. Why, then, was media space given to Mrs Fergus’s passionate but nonsensical view that the Commissioner ‘owes me and James an apology’?

As the victims of phone hacking call for statutory underpinning, believing it is the only way similar abuses can be avoided in the future, you can re-read Sarler’s argument here.

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