LONDON (Reuters) - “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling told a public inquiry into British media standards on Thursday she was forced to move house because of tabloid harassment and had been made to feel like a hostage in her home after she gave birth.
During two hours of evidence, Rowling revealed a note had been slipped into her young daughter’s schoolbag by a journalist and that she had chased a paparazzo photographer down the street when he tried to take a picture of her with her children.
Rowling, who is protective of her three children’s privacy and has regularly complained to the press, said if you did stand up to certain newspapers about their behaviour, they could be “spiteful” and seek retribution.
“This doesn’t apply to the whole of the press but the attitude seems to be utterly cavalier, indifference, what does it matter, you’re famous, you’re asking for it,” she said.
The Leveson inquiry, held in London’s High Court, has proved compelling viewing this week as a host of public figures from actor Hugh Grant to families involved in notorious murders have explained how they have suffered at the hands of newspapers.
It has shone a critical light on Britain’s aggressive tabloid press, which engages in a ruthless hunt for stories to prop up otherwise flagging sales, splashing on the sex lives of politicians and the stars of film, TV and sport, to whet the appetite of celebrity-obsessed Britons.
Appearing nervous at first and speaking softly, Rowling revealed that two years after the launch of the first of the hugely successful Harry Potter books in 1997, she had been forced from her home.
“It had become untenable to remain in that house,” she said, saying photographers and journalists had besieged her home, details of which had been published by papers. “I was a sitting duck for anyone trying to find me.”
She spoke of her fury at finding a letter from a journalist in her 5-year-old daughter’s schoolbag and her outrage when the headteacher at one of her children’s schools was contacted to try to glean details about the final book in the Potter series.
Clearly what angered her most were photos taken of her children, particularly one of her eldest daughter in a swimsuit.
“A child, no matter who their parents are, deserves privacy,” said Rowling, whose seven Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide and spawned a record-breaking film franchise, and has been billed as the world’s first author billionaire.
The inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron after it emerged that people working for the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had hacked into the phones of thousands to secure stories, prompting a national outcry.
But the probe has already broadened its focus to look at wider ethical issues. At the heart of the dispute between the press and those it reports on is what constitutes public interest and whether a person’s presence in the public eye justifies a wider invasion of their privacy.
The press argues that it needs minimal regulation to enable it to expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy, but those appearing have said that freedom of speech has been seen as a green light to report anything, so long as it boosts sales.
One of those most damaged by Britain’s tabloid press was Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One, who appeared on the front page of the News of the World in 2008 engaged in what the paper falsely described as a Nazi-themed sex orgy.
Mosley, 71, later won a payout from the newspaper and has publicly led the debate on the right to privacy.
The result of the story, he said, was that his son returned to taking drugs and died in May 2009. Photographers then took pictures as he entered his son’s house shortly afterwards.
“What to me was so horrifying was there was no sense that this matters,” he said of the photographers, explaining that the story had severely affected his son, who was struggling with drug abuse. “They have no human feeling at all,” he said.
Earlier actress Sienna Miller said she had been placed under a “web of surveillance” by a tabloid newspaper which listened into her messages and read emails, prompting her to accuse family and friends of leaking stories to the press.
The 29-year-old star of movies such as “Layer Cake” and “Alfie” whose on-off relationship with actor Jude Law became staple tabloid fodder said she had been spat at and abused by paparazzi seeking a reaction.