In terms of silly-season page fillers, escaped prisoners trump any bog-standard crime story, with the exception, perhaps, of a jolly good murder. But when a convicted conwoman, Farah Damji, went on the run from HMP Downview last week, Fleet Street had more reason than normal to prick up its ears.
Damji, the socialite daughter of a prominent Asian property tycoon, has become a notorious figure in the media village. She last made headlines in October after being jailed for three-and-a-half years for using stolen credit-cards to fund her free-spending lifestyle.
As that case approached trial, she dropped another gift into the laps of headline writers by impersonating David Blunkett's secretary and two members of the Crown Prosecution Service, in a failed bid to have the charges against her dropped.
Then, a week ago on Saturday, events took yet another turn. Halfway through her sentence, Damji failed to return from a day trip to London, where she'd been given permission to attend an Open University course at the LSE.
To journalists, the story behind these stories is still more fascinating. Damji, a former magazine editor, founded the Asian lifestyle title Indobrit in 2002. She's on first-name terms with dozens of prominent hacks and maintained e-mail contact with several throughout her spell at Her Majesty's pleasure.
Even as a wanted woman, Damji was determined to keep herself in the spotlight, and last week claimed a surreal journalistic record: Britain's first on-the-run blogger.
On Wednesday, she boasted of freedom on MySpace: "Seems I am the cause for great consternation, because I have apparently absconded. I don't think you can call it that."
The next day, Damji's blog was picked up by Sunny Hundal, the editor of the Asians in Media website and a man Damji considers an arch enemy. In a bid to take the sting out of his tale, she contacted The Independent, offering an interview. Simultaneously, The Times stumbled on her blog. By Thursday, she was headline news.
At time of going to print, Damji remained at large, holed up at a friend's house on the south-west coast. Journalists seeking to interview her meet with mixed results. Some get a cheerful chat, others a curt knock-back. One, The Daily Mail's Neil Sears, was driven to mild desperation. In an e-mail to Damji - subsequently forwarded to several rivals - he attempted to persuade her of the merits of a "Mail tracks down absconded prisoner" scoop.
"Ideally, we'd do an exclusive live picture of your hideout," he wrote. "It would mean my piece would have a great exclusive line, and would guarantee a good show in the paper.
"If necessary, our photographer could be blindfolded and put in the boot of a car to get to you, if you don't trust us to keep your location secret... I am gagging to hear about prisoners' rights and what it's really like for women in prison."
Damji certainly has a colourful tale to tell. The Ugandan-born daughter of the property developer Amir Damji, and niece of the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, she first gained notoriety in New York during the 1990s, where she spent six months at Rikers Island prison for grand larceny and forgery.
By 2002, Damji had resurfaced in London with two children. Hiding her troubled past from the media company in which she was now mixing, she launched Indobrit to great acclaim that year. On the personal front, things weren't so smooth. In 2003, intimate details surfaced about her affairs with two high-profile married men. One was the travel writer William Dalrymple; the other, a senior executive at Guardian Media Group. After both liaisons came to acrimonious ends, someone called "Mrs Equaliser" circulated a detailed account of them to journalists. Within days, it was the subject of a Mail on Sunday feature.
Simultaneously, Indobrit found itself at the centre of a trademark dispute, and was forced to change its name to Another Generation. The cost of fighting the action ran to thousands of pounds. "I could have asked my father for money at any time, but I didn't want to," Damji later recalled. "I was just haemorrhaging money to lawyers."
So began a £50,000 string of credit-card thefts that was later recounted to Blackfriars Crown Court. Most involved other journalists. One victim, a former employee at Another Generation, subsequently declared Damji "the worst editor ever".
In another case, she stole thousands of pounds' worth of jewellery from Boodle and Dunthorne by pretending to be (then) Mail on Sunday reporter Kiki King, and saying they were needed for a fashion shoot.
The great tragedy of Damji's case, though, is that she could have been a very good magazine editor. She admits to a borderline personality disorder, and has suffered addictions to cocaine and alcohol. But her magazines were smart, readable and award-winning. She remains a curiously likeable character.
Journalists, meanwhile, have found it difficult to condemn her. Recent coverage of her tale has been remarkably sympathetic. Perhaps it goes to show: there's a bit of the con artist in all of us.Reuse content