As the towers fell, the editor said 'get your Harry Potter costume on now'
While the world reeled at the scale of the tragedy, former 'News of the World' reporter Charles Begley was ordered to dress up as J K Rowling's hero to amuse Rebekah Wade
Sunday 25 August 2002
Last 11 September was a day which truly did change the world. A day we can all vividly recall exactly what we were doing and where we were.
But for some people events in New York were not overly important in terms of news value. The editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Wade, had her mind on apparently weightier matters.
While every other editor and journalist was polarised into reporting the cataclysmic events in the States, Ms Wade demanded one of her reporters dress up as none other than the children's character Harry Potter.
It was around 4.30pm, less than 90 minutes after the second tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed with the loss of what was thought at the time to be up to 50,000 lives. Fortunately, the initial estimates failed to materialise, although the enormity of the tragedy was not diminished.
The news editor approached my desk and told me sheepishly that Rebekah Wade wanted me in her office dressed in the garb of the fictional schoolboy wizard.
Tabloid reporters get used to having to entertain the madcap schemes of their over-excitable editors. But given the events unfolding around the world this struck me as perverse in the extreme.
The previous week I had the misfortune of being made the Harry Potter correspondent. This entailed the changing of my name by deed poll and prancing around like a transvestite with a schoolboy fetish. My transformation from "mild-mannered reporter" to prepubescent wizard was published across two pages of the News of the World on 9 September. It does not rank as the pinnacle of my career, but there are those of the opinion that if you work for a tabloid you get your just deserts.
I'd previously worked for The Sun and knew all about the stunts conjured up by the red-tops. It was The Sun which pioneered the idea with its Lenny Lottery antics. However, had a tragedy of 11 September proportions occurred in the midst of lottery mania I very much doubt the editor would have ordered his correspondent to prance around for a laugh.
Mirror editor Piers Morgan even underwent an overhaul of his news values in the wake of the tragedy and rebranded the paper to widespread acclaim. It was reward- ed with a raft of honours at the Press Gazette industry awards. Tellingly, the News of the World did not win a single gong and Rebekah Wade boycotted the ceremony and invented her own prizegiving.
Ms Wade had not been at Wapping HQ the previous Saturday when I posed as Harry Potter for a photo shoot. She was so impressed by the photographs she now wanted to see me dressed as the young wizard in the flesh.
Thoughts of leaving the News of the World there and then crossed my mind. But in this game it pays not to be too rash. Pet projects come and go, and editors easily become bored with their follies. Surely once she fully realised what was happening across the Atlantic she would relent.
At 5pm I approached Ms Wade's office, without broomstick or wand, to find her and and several other News International executives sat around seemingly awaiting my magical appearance as the schoolboy wizard. It was only when an aggrieved deputy editor Andy Coulson demanded to know where my outfit was that I realised this was no joke. I spluttered something out about leaving it in the photo studio. Coulson declared: "You should have your Harry Potter costume with you at all times. There could be a Harry Potter emergency."
Somehow the fact that the world's worst terrorist attack had taken place completely escaped him. Unabashed he ordered me to turn up at the following morning's news conference dressed as Harry Potter for the benefit of virtually every senior executive at the paper. He helpfully suggested my wife could help apply the make-up before leaving home. The previous week he'd proposed I have electrolysis to tame my eyebrows, and maybe control the growth of beard.
That was when it had been decided that I would carry out this "very important project". Foolishly I had thought I'd been summoned for a Jeffrey Archer-style investigation, which under the previous editor Phil Hall proved one of the newspaper's greatest scoops and landed the Tory peer in jail. But Ms Wade, who recently married the former EastEnders star Ross Kemp, had other ideas. She even envisaged her Harry Potter creation appearing onHave I Got News For You. I dread to think what Angus Deayton and Ian Hislop would have made of me...
To ask why I didn't simply refuse to go along with the stunt shows a failure to understand the machinations of News International. At the News of the World, and its sister titlesThe Sun, The Sunday Times and The Times, the editor is infallible to all but the chairman Les Hinton and owner Rupert Murdoch.
What Mr Murdoch makes of it all is anybody's guess. His connections to NYC date back to 1976 when he first bought the New York Post. A News Corp reporter died in one of the hijacked planes which crashed into the World Trade Centre.
I never did turn up at that meeting as Harry Potter. In fact, I went into the office just one more time. I secretly changed my name back to Charles Begley and an embarrassed News of the World initially offered to pay me to go quietly, but later reneged on the deal.
They were apparently upset that I'd dared to question the integrity of Ms Wade after she told a newspaper that she had "no idea" why I was so appalled at the Harry Potter stunt. Besides, she insisted, I had not paraded around dressed as Potter after the attacks – though failed to add that this was only because I'd declined to do so.
The National Union of Journalists launched a claim for me against the paper but it was struck out on a technicality before any evidence was even heard. The NUJ is currently considering further legal action. As for me, I've had a complete change of career. I now work as a journalist.
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