Leveson inquiry’s celeb jury will put press in the dock

Tabloid editors beware. Next week is where the Leveson inquiry gets interesting. If you’ve struggled to follow, or show much interest in the phone hacking scandal, you can be sure that the parade of household names coming to the high court will change all that. Sometime next week the judge will hear evidence from victims of hacking or other forms of media intrusion – a roll call of those who have occupied editorial real estate sometimes over the past 10 years.

So here comes Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Sheryl Gascoigne, Anne Diamond and Charlotte Church. Enough, easily, to fill an edition of Heat magazine. JK Rowling, who has fought with the press to safeguard the privacy of her children, will be bringing her wand. Conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, can wait for Ian Hurst, the former army intelligence officer, who served in Northern Ireland and has alleged that his emails were hacked into by investigators working on behalf of the News of the World. And there will also be evidence from Chris Jefferies, who was a victim of trial by media when the police were searching for the killer of Joanna Yeates.

In a culture obsessed by fame and victimhood, these are all people who will command the national attention. Newspapers that have traditionally dipped in and out of the hacking story will have little choice but to take an interest in what they say. Each person giving evidence has a chance to put those who once pursued them for news back in the dock. No wonder Richard Wallace, the editor of the Daily Mirror, warned at the Society of Editors conference on Monday that newspapers will have to endure a torrid week or two as the public hears how people were harassed or hacked for stories.

Or at least that is the theory. There is no doubt that ordinary people caught up in the media storm – such as Chris Jefferies – will be accorded automatic respect. But it is not a given that the public will take seriously being lectured by the rich and famous. The inquiry will have to show that it is not excessively deferential, just interested in getting at the truth. Those giving evidence, meanwhile, need to know they are not there to fish for sympathy, or play to the gallery: just to explain the realities of life under press’s gaze. After all, being a movie star or a singer does not qualify you for exclusively positive treatment in the public prints.

In any event, the reality of the modern media economy is that for all the high-minded talk about media standards or privacy laws, it is the battle between tabloids and the famous, played out as much in the courtroom as well on the front pages, that defines the boundary lines. That means that the evidence of Grant, Miller, Coogan et al is necessary to understanding how newspapers can operate. For that reason, the evidence of the next week is crucial. But let’s hope we are spared too many theatrics.

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