An everyday story of how the 'Daily Mail' digs its dirt - and how to throw it back

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The Independent Online
This is a pre-emptive strike against the sleaze merchants of the Daily Mail - an everyday story of dirty-raincoat journalism. I am in the happy position of being able to land one on them before they try to land one on me. Most tabloid victims are not so lucky.

Here is the story. It started some weeks ago when I met the Mail's new associate editor, Veronica Wadley, sunk to that post recently from the Daily Telegraph. At a party, laughing over drinks, she told me: "You are the absolute bete noire of the Mail. We talk about you often at meetings." I represented all the liberal values they loathe, she said. (And as far I am concerned, the honour is returned: they stand for everything that stinks about moralising hypocrisy.) Everything I write affronts them - on Michael Howard, law and order, the legalisation of soft drugs, poverty and social responsibility: you name it, they hate it. But most of all, on family values. She said, laughing, that they were out to get me. I laughed too - imagining some reasoned confrontation argued out in print. How naive.

A couple of weeks back the Independent reprinted from Prospect magazine a long correspondence between myself and Melanie Phillips of the Observer. Over more than 20 years we have stood at opposite ends of the spectrum on family values issues. She takes a stern view of divorce and urges people to stay together for the sake of their children and society. I have always regarded divorce not as a social disaster but as a fundamental civil liberty.

In the course of our exchange of letters, Melanie suggested supporters of freedom were simply apologists for their own divorces. I explained I was widowed and neither my husband nor myself had ever been divorced. What I did not say, because it seemed to me no one's business, is that for the last three years I have had a close relationship with a man who separated from his wife. We live an open public life, what's new?

The Daily Mail think they sniff out hypocrisy. They think they've got me - but I think not. Now if I were a silly MP like Rod Richards, or any other family values advocate, that would be another matter. If I were Melanie Phillips, then Bingo! But I have always argued for people to escape unhappiness where they can, life is not a rehearsal, etc etc.

First hint that something was up: people start getting calls from a David Jones of the Daily Mail, digging for dirt. Colleagues in this office get calls. Mr Jones is ferreting away among friends, collecting quotes. The story he seems to be creating is the age-old saga of idylls destroyed by scarlet Jezebels. Mr Jones is throwing around words about me like "marriage- breaker".

I am puzzled. I try to imagine how they can turn this everyday concatenation of domestic circumstance into A Story. I am glad I do not have to pen the opening lines of this dull tale about a hack of little interest to most Mail readers. How many divorced, separated or philandering journalists work on the Mail, I wonder, idly? But the Mail thinks with a few sneaky phone calls a reporter can get to the bottom of these difficult things.

Suddenly I find it frightening. Neighbours are getting calls - some of them people I have never met. On Tuesday a man came over from No 6, deeply worried by a call from the Mail asking detailed questions about what hours he had observed any men coming and going at my house. He suspected it was a burglar casing the joint. My 11-year-old son was terrified, but even more so when the house actually was broken into that day, for the first time in years. A coincidence, I am sure.

But it is hard to describe the paranoia this induces. I try to imagine how much worse it would be if I did have a secret to hide, especially from children.

In a fit of anxiety I rang a senior Mail writer, an acquaintance who I thought would not much like this kind of stuff. This contact spoke to David Jones and then called me back, explaining: "He's not a happy bunny". Poor Jones did not like this assignment, which had been passed on to him from a more senior journalist who refused to handle it, but the editor, Paul Dacre, was keen on it. However, unhappy bunny or gleeful weasel, my heart does not go out to Mr Jones or his employers.

David Jones left a heap of messages on my pager and at home for me to call him. Colleagues wisely advised me not to do so. But then I decided not to take this like a victim, and to hit back first. To stop him writing his story before I can write mine, I called him yesterday morning to say that I would talk to him at great length and in great detail, but not until today. (Fat chance.)

In the background there is the sound of his children having breakfast. He is plainly astounded by my offer.

"I don't like this story at all," he bleats. "I'm going to ask them to put someone else on it." Awfully nice of him. "But I've got four children to feed and they might not let me hand it on." Later, Mr Jones rang a colleague of mine and told him he had asked to be taken off the story. Let's hope his rediscovery of decency does not earn him the sack. We do not know if some other poor blighter has been assigned the "story". But we can assume so.

It's standard Daily Mail stuff. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, an erstwhile friend, once wrote a damaging stinker about me in the Mail when I was at the BBC and then had the nerve to write me a cringing letter claiming his copy had been doctored and, anyway, he had a lot of little Wheatcrofts to keep in shoe leather. This lack of moral fibre does not seem to have dinted his ardour for moralising on anything and everything for the Mail.

So there it is, the newspaper of family values at its lowest. Why are they so afraid of honest argument with those who have different views? Why can't they come out in the open and debate their beliefs? It is because their view of society is such a mishmash of contradictory hypocrisies, so far removed from most families' complicated experiences. No doubt they will retaliate against me some day. But it is time to stand up to them.