Newspapers tarnished by Mary Bell coverage

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The Independent Online
THE FOCUS of attention in the Mary Bell case switched onto the behaviour of the national press yesterday, with precious few newspapers, from the qualities to the tabloids, covering themselves in glory.

The tabloids were simultaneously condemning and wooing Mary Bell, not to mention feeding drinks to her boyfriend for a story, while the Times and the Daily Telegraph exchanged letters and leader articles on the rights and wrongs of paying for the book's serialisation rights.

The Press Complaints Commission disclosed that it was conducting an investigation into the Times' pounds 40,000 purchase of Gitta Sereny's book on Ms Bell, Cries Unheard, following a complaint from a member of the public. The investigation may take a month to complete.

Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, denied yesterday that money from his newspaper reached Bell. He also maintained that the book was in the public interest.

The PCC disclosed that it had received 30 to 40 complaints from the public about the behaviour of reporters outside Ms Bell's home in a south coast town. Most callers were angry that the journalists' presence had forced Ms Bell to admit her true identity to her 14-year old daughter. They were also angry that the reporter's door-stepping tactics meant the East Sussex Police had to take the pair into protective custody.

The commission is unable to take up complaints about press harassment from third parties because those complaining cannot name the actual newspapers and journalists involved. So far the PCC has had no complaint from Ms Bell.

Mr Stothard denied that the Times carried any responsibility for the hounding of Ms Bell. Instead he attacked Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, for his remark this week that Ms Bell had endangered her right to privacy by co-operating on the book: "It was like Jack Straw saying the court order protecting her identity doesn't matter. Politicians have legitimised the chase, this hysterical side issue of tracking her down and punishing her."

While tabloid newspapers expressed outrage at a payment made by Ms Sereny to Ms Bell for her co-operation on the book, it emerged that at least two Sunday newspapers were vying for interviews with her. Both the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday posted letters into the Bell home on Wednesday. The News of The World's editor Phil Hall said yesterday: "We haven't offered her any money. We have offered her a safe berth away from media attention in return for an interview."

But Ms Sereny claimed that some newspapers were offering money which made the payment she had made look "infinitesimal in comparison with the offers she [Bell] has had from the very same newspapers who have been screaming the loudest these last 10 days. The offers are continuing to come in."

Clause 16 of the PCC's code would forbid any payment to Ms Bell because she is a convicted criminal. Newspapers could get around the rule if they could prove there was a public interest in making the payment. Less legitimately, some tabloid newspapers have in the past made payments to close family friends in order to secure interviews without breaking the PCC code.

All of the tabloid newspapers carried front page interviews with Ms Bell's 39-year old boyfriend yesterday, but no money changed hands. However one reporter did confess that the man was clearly in a distressed state.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the newspaper market, both the Times and the Daily Telegraph were trying to make capital out of the story.

Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, penned an article for his newspaper on Tuesday explaining why he had turned down serialisation rights for the Bell book and implicitly attacking the Times for doing so. The following day Mr Stothard returned fire in an article accusing Mr Moore of dropping a pounds 75,000 offer for a book he admired because of fears about what rivals' opinions of the deal, it was he said: "Rejection of principle in return for safety from criticism."

This prompted the unusual response of letter in yesterday's Times from the editor of the Daily Telegraph accusing Stothard of misleading his readers.

And somewhere Mary Bell, in hiding with her 14-year-old daughter, must be considering the value of whatever payment Ms Sereny made to her.

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