Murdoch furious after Sun paid six figures for hoax tape

Tape allegedly showing Diana and lover among great hoaxes of Fleet Street
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The Independent Online
The future of Stuart Higgins, editor of the Sun, was in question last night after the humiliation of the "Higgygate" videotape debacle. Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper's proprietor, is said to be enraged.

Mr Higgins will not be helped by reports that he paid a six-figure sum for the tape. Yesterday it emerged that the tape had been hawked around the US and rejected by at least one other publication in London a week before the Sun splashed it as a "world exclusive".

Jane Ennis, editor of the celebrity news magazine Here!, said yesterday that she was approached last Tuesday by a man who claimed to have a scoop.

It did not take Ms Ennis long to reject the film after watching it at the magazine's offices in Victoria, central London. "Firstly, he didn't look like anybody you might trust," she said. "He came into my room and we watched the film. I asked him some questions about it - who made it, when it was filmed, how he came by it - and he couldn't answer them."

Ms Ennis believes that in the course of questioning the man she might have planted the seed of the story that was later used to dupe Mr Higgins. "I told him that it was a bit of an old story anyway unless there was some new angle to it, like if it had been filmed by MI5 or something. He didn't say anything but his eyes lit up. I said we'd think about it overnight."

Ms Ennis said she was concerned that the black-and-white video could easily have been doctored. "I discussed it with my colleagues and we checked with one of the paparazzi guys in the US. He said: 'Yeah, we've heard about this but no one is touching it.' I called them and said we weren't interested.

"By the time they got to Stuart [Higgins] they must have tightened up their story considerably. Perhaps they treated me as a trial run but I've no doubt they presented him with a much slicker operation. I feel very sorry for Stuart."

This may be some comfort to Mr Higgins. But probably not much. A Sun insider said yesterday that Mr Murdoch was on the warpath. "No one is talking about how much money it cost and they are saying that Higgy might go."

Last night Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, weighed in, warning that "events of the last few days" had thrown into sharp focus a matter that had been worrying him for some time.

"Although these events concern primarily members and former members of the Royal Family, the key issues they raise - invasion of privacy and the use of public-interest defence by newspapers - have wider ramifications." The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, has done its best to maximise Mr Higgins' discomfort by exposing the hoax and forcing the Sun to issue an humiliating apology.

Mr Higgins refused to comment but he wrote in the Sun that he had done his best to corroborate the film with independent witnesses and had hired surveillance experts to suggest its original source.

He and his deputy, Neil Wallis, had viewed it again and again to make sure it was the real thing.

In fact "the real thing" was nothing more than an 80-second show-reel by an aspiring film-maker, a writer called Nick Hedges who explained that he made the film with the intention of sending it to producers to demonstrate the kind of sketch he could do.

Yesterday the Sun was throwing its energies into finding the "smart American lawyer" who sold the paper the video for more than pounds 100,000 "on behalf of a group of soldiers or bodyguards led by a man known only as The Sergeant".

Mr Higgins is not alone in being hoaxed. The Sunday Times was spectacularly duped in 1983 by the forged Hitler diaries, while the scientific world was taken in by the 1912 Piltdown skull. A year ago the Queen was hoodwinked into broadcasting to Canada by a DJ called Pierre Brassard who was posing as the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. She kept her job. It remains to be seen if Mr Higgins will do the same.

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