It never occurred to me to think about the consequences of such an admittedly small-scale whispering campaign for the man concerned until I suffered the same fate. I did an interview with a group of nuns about their desire to be priests - I used to work for a Catholic newspaper so it was a fairly routine assignment - filed my story and thought no more about it. Several months later I called one of the paper's regular dial-a-quotes and, for the first time in living memory, she refused to supply a few well-chosen sentences on whatever topic was in the news. The reason, she explained, was that she had been told on the grapevine I wasn't to be trusted to report things accurately. Worse, I had my own agenda.
The slur, I quickly discovered, had come from the nuns. I spoke to them, heard their complaint and produced a transcript of the tape I had made to show that I had got nothing at all wrong. But like every other institution, the Catholic world is small, gossipy and happy to believe the worst of people - especially when it is intoned by a woman of God - and for many months afterwards I kept encountering suspicious glances, curt rebuffs and thinly veiled hostility.
Mud sticks, however unjust and fourth-hand the accusation, however misguided your accuser and however hard you fight to clear your name. In my case there was little I could do since no charge had ever been made public. Even if the mud doesn't stick with those who have heard and then discounted the allegations, it sticks in your own mind, damages you, undermines your confidence.
Take the recent Mandelson affair. Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's flamboyant spin doctor, was forced out of office because he was identified as the origin of the leak about Mandy's mortgage. All concerned with bringing that titbit to public attention have denied that he was the source. Yet Whelan had to go. It might be argued that the allegation was merely the catalyst that brought a barrowload of other prejudices and better-based concerns about his behaviour to the surface.
In other recent high-profile cases, however, there was not even the excuse of a back catalogue of similar offences. Richard Madeley, king of the daytime chat show with his wife Judy Finnegan, was accused and found not guilty of shoplifting. Yet this bland and inoffensive couple are still routinely referred to as "Pinch and Judy". At least it hasn't cost them their jobs. Remember Len Fairclough, lovely Rita from The Kabin's builder beau in Coronation Street? The actor who played him, Peter Adamson, was charged with touching little girls in a swimming pool. The tabloids indulged in a feast of outrage and indignation.
He was found not guilty, but the jokes about the Len Fairclough breast- stroke persisted and his screen character was killed off. The actor himself paid a heavy price. His career was ruined. Equity says that he currently has no agent and is officially "resting".
The human cost for individuals judged innocent by a court but guilty by the public can be enormous. Who, now, would trust their nest-egg to Ian or Kevin Maxwell despite a court's ruling in 1996, after eight months of deliberation, that they were innocent of involvement in their father's pensions fraud? How many of us watching Craig Charles in Red Dwarf think, "Oh, he's the bloke who was up for rape," rather than, "Oh, he's the bloke who was cleared of rape"? And whatever the outcome of the ongoing Gary Glitter child pornography charges, who is going to want to be in his gang even if he is found innocent by the courts?
The most obvious solution to the "mud sticks" syndrome, according to lawyer Richard Scorer, would be to accord the accused - especially in cases to do with sexual allegations - the same anonymity as victims. It would certainly stop lurid newspaper reporting of as yet unproven charges. "But hard cases make bad laws," says Scorer, who is one of Britain's leading specialists in child abuse litigation. "There is a balance to be achieved between protecting the rights of individuals who may be unjustly accused and encouraging others to speak out. If the person who has been accused is named, you often find in this area that others who may have been victims of the same person but who were too frightened to say anything find the confidence to come forward."
There are now professional codes of practice to protect social workers or teachers who are most vulnerable to false accusation. Other bodies too have tried out similar strategies. Conscious no doubt of the nightmare endured by 800m runner Diane Modahl when she was accused - unjustly - of drugs offences, last month the athletics authorities refused to identify another runner who had come under suspicion. It was a courageous move, but the appetite for a name was insatiable. A witch-hunt was soon underway and in a matter of hours it smoked out Dougie Walker who now promises to fight to clear his name.
Law, in theory, should be the ultimate saviour of the reputation of those unjustly accused, but the expectation that the courts can, at a stroke, halt whispering campaigns has often proved mistaken. Linford Christie, the Olympic gold medal sprinter, was accused in a small circulation and now defunct satirical magazine, Spiked, of taking performance-enhancing drugs. He sued, won the action, but only after his sporting pedigree had been questioned in every newspaper in the land. And, even though he received substantial damages, the whole very public spectacle left him pounds 50,000 out of pocket.
"Trying to convince the public via a court that an injustice has been committed is both difficult and dangerous," says the publicist, Max Clifford. "People read what's said in court, weigh up the evidence and come to their own verdict regardless of what the court says. I tend to advise clients not to get involved in court battles unless they feel the accusations are totally damning to their careers. Often it's better just to ignore them, or attack it from another angle, like a series of newspaper interviews."
The public is also sometimes rightly distrustful of court verdicts. The Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and a whole host more have in recent years demonstrated that the official outcome cannot always be regarded as the last word. Further muddying the waters, there has even been the spectacle of two different courts considering the same case and coming up with contradictory judgments. OJ Simpson was found not guilty in a criminal court of murdering his wife and her friend, but guilty in a subsequent civil case for damages - where there is a lower burden of proof.
This infectious disregard for the most basic principle of justice - innocent until proved guilty - is now going one step further, without even waiting for any charges to be pressed. There is a new parlour game, an odd cocktail of Cluedo and Hangman. First watch the grieving murder victim's relative on the news appealing for help in finding the killer of their loved one, and then decide whether or not he or she did it. As Nick Ross always tells those who tune in to Crimewatch, you're much more likely to be murdered by someone you know than a stranger.
The result is a kangaroo court in every sitting room. With Tracey Andrews, all bruises and dishevelled blond hair as she sobbed about the road-rage murder of her boyfriend, the suspicion that there was something that didn't quite add up was subsequently vindicated by the courts, but not until months after the public had reached its verdict. Yet there have been plenty of others who failed the lynch-mob test, yet still walked free on the instructions of a judge. They will never escape the whispers.
"The urge to scapegoat is universal and very powerful," according to the historian and sociologist, Doctor Rosalind Miles, "to believe the worst and to put on to others flaws that we probably recognise in ourselves but don't want to admit to." But there is a more positive flip side to this, she points out. "It tends to be balanced by a corresponding impulse to make saints," says Miles. The cast list of sinners by popular acclaim is usually accompanied by a smaller group of manufactured saints. Some lucky souls get fixed in the imagination as whiter than white and no amount of evidence to the contrary can dislodge them, as Diana, Princess of Wales, found in life and in death. Diana died in the same week as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, yet it was Diana who was sanctified by popular acclaim. The choice of heroes as well as villains, it appears, is arbitrary.
And so the chance of falling victim to a whispering campaign effectively haunts us all. When I sensed the mud was sticking to my name, I used to lie awake at night wondering how I and others like me could wash the slate clean. The greatest protection surely lies in that old adage, do as you would be done by. Banish from our own hearts and minds the uncharitable rumours, the urban myths and the instinctive suspicions, however fascinating, and stick to innocent until proved guilty. When I now watch the news on television without voicing or even thinking about that purse, I am making a small contribution to my own rehabilitation
Patrick Maguire, 37, was sent to an adult prison for four years at the age of 14 for his alleged involvement in IRA bombings. He and his family - collectively known as the Maguire Seven - were subsequently cleared. He now lives in west London, where he grew up before his arrest, and has three children of his own.
"There are times when I wish we had been guilty because all that has subsequently happened would perhaps be easier to bear. When I was out of prison, people would cross the road to avoid me. When I tried to get a job, I wouldn't lie. At interviews, they would either listen, fascinated, or blank me there and then, but I never got the job.
I constantly felt like I had to explain that I had never done anything. But people are funny about anyone who's been in prison, even if they shouldn't have been there. No smoke without fire and all that. But do they ever ask who lit the fire? The system, the police? No, that's too complicated.
You never know when people are looking at you if it's because you've got a new coat on or whatever, or whether it's because they think you're guilty. It's quietened down a lot now, but I remember for years afterwards whenever there had been a bomb in London, thinking, `Jesus, no'. It wasn't only that people had been killed and that it was wrong, but also there was this little light that came on, this fear that people would start pointing at me again.
I've learnt to bite my lip, to carry my anger. Now I just think, sod the lot of you. I don't care what you think of me. I know I'm innocent and I hold my head up high. I still keep out of people's way though. I'm a bit of a hermit now. I just don't want to be confronted with it all the time."
The Revd Gray Kerr, 65, was informed in 1989 that for much of his life as an Anglican clergyman his name had been on the Lambeth and Bishopthorpe Register, a private blacklist kept by senior church officials. Though he had never faced formal disciplinary action, he believes that because his name was on the list, his church career was blighted.
"As a young man in Scotland I spent some time in prison for petty crimes, but when my vocation was accepted and I was ordained in 1968, I was told by my superiors that such matters were now all in the past. But each time I took up a new post people would somehow have heard about them. In despair I began to gamble. My bishop was privately understanding but with hindsight I believe it was then, around 1974, that my name was put on the register.
I subsequently trained as a hospital chaplain, but after six applications for jobs hadn't got anywhere, my tutor told me that for reasons he couldn't explain I was never going to get an appointment. I still didn't know about the register. In 1984 I took over a failing parish in Musselburgh in Scotland. I had the support of the bishop but when he retired I was accused of stealing pounds 112 from parish funds. Once a crook, always a crook, the dean told me. Even though I was able to show there was no truth at all in the allegation, it caused me to have a breakdown and I took early retirement.
When I was informed in writing by Canterbury that I was on the register, I realised that I had been damned on the basis of what I did when I was young, and for later crimes that either were not crimes or which I did not commit. The Church clearly thinks I am a criminal and has murdered me spiritually and emotionally. This register is to my mind wickedly un- Christian."
Margaret Baber, 54, was charged in March 1995 with endangering the life of an elderly diabetic neighbour she cared for in Bristol. She was accused of tampering with 79-year-old Beryl Hall's insulin syringes in order to hasten her death and gain access to her savings. While the case was being prepared, Baber suffered a stroke. The charges were allowed to lie on the file, meaning no further action was taken.
"I was just trying to be a good neighbour. I'd cook Beryl an evening meal, help her bathe and go to bed. She used to say I was the daughter she never had. She always stood by me right up to her death last year. Even after I was charged, she appeared in court to say that she didn't believe a word of it.
People spat at me in the street. I used to get late-night phone calls saying, `You're another Rosemary West.' One local vicar even barred me from his congregation. My house was searched from top to bottom by the police. Social services were called in and put my children on the at-risk register. My older daughter couldn't take the strain and left home. It tore our family apart.
Three years on it's still going on. Neighbours still ignore me or say things under their breath about how I've got my just desserts because I now have to use a wheelchair. I'm still not served in certain local shops. If I stand up for myself and say `it was never proven', people say `the police don't lie. You were charged. You went to court.' We thought about a civil case for aggravated prosecution, but I just couldn't stand the stress. It's taken away all my self-esteem and self-confidence. I'll certainly never help another old person.
Three years ago I would willingly have moved away, but now I'm staying put. Why should I move? I have done nothing wrong. And even if I do move, this thing will never leave me. It will always be there for the rest of my life."
Lance Dowson, 55, was a teacher in a Stockport special needs school in 1995 when a severely disturbed pupil accused him of raping her. After three separate enquiries, no charges resulted. However, Dowson was given an ultimatum by his employers - retire or face the sack. He agreed to go but later won a case for unfair dismissal at an industrial tribunal. He is now suing the local council for damages of pounds 200,000 for loss of earnings plus additional sums for personal injury and professional stigmatisation.
"I had never ever been on my own with this girl. On the very few occasions I saw her, there were always witnesses present. There are guidelines for this sort of incident. The head of the school should have examined whether there was any evidence to back up her allegations. If he had, the whole thing could have begun and finished there.
Instead, before I was even told what she had been saying, there were two secret meetings with social workers, with 30 people informed of her allegations. Some of them worked with kids I taught so the news got back to them. When I went into school everyone seemed to know about it. Of the team of six that I worked in, three colleagues were very, very supportive. The other two just turned their backs on me. Even once I was vindicated, they never made any attempt to apologise.
I hardly go out at all now even though we don't live in Stockport itself. I keep having this dream that I'm walking down the street and people that I worked with for years start shouting `you dirty bastard' after me.
I'm on anti-depressants. I used to earn pounds 25,000, now I get a pension of pounds 8,000. This has effectively wiped out any career that I might now have as a social worker, a psychologist or a teacher. It's on my record that I was investigated for raping a pupil. And anyway why would I do it again? Why would I put myself in a position where someone could get one over on me by making a false complaint. But I am going to fight on until my name is completely cleared.
My daughter was training to be a teacher when this happened. She has now decided that she never wants to go into a classroom and face the same risk."