Private Lives?: Victims served on a plate for a news-hungry nation; the Public

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The Independent Online
HOW DO ordinary citizens - as opposed to royals, politicians and celebrities - react to a wilful or blundering press? When privacy is invaded and views are inaccurately represented, the results can include days of ridicule from neighbours, careers under threat, intimidation, blackmail and fear.

Sometimes the memories can take years to fade. On Thursday the Independent published a letter from Professor B T M Willis of Oxford recalling the death of his daughter and her boyfriend, both aged 26, in a mountaineering accident in Scotland in 1981. 'My wife and I received the news on Saturday, and on the following Sunday we were subjected to repeated telephone calls from the local and national press. On the Monday, reporters knocked on our front door, asking for photographs and information: they were answered by a friend while we cowered indoors. Finally, we decamped with another friend until the following day, leaving our house empty.'

On the telephone, Professor Willis said: 'This took place 12 years ago, and I'm still smarting. That gives you an idea of the effect the press can have.' Overcome with emotion, he passed the telephone to his wife, a magistrate. Mrs Willis said it 'never occurred to us' to remonstrate with the newspapers over their behaviour, or to appeal to the Press Council, the body which preceded the Press Complaints Commission. 'It lasted three days, in the course of which I turned out the lights and pretended not to be there, and rang my husband at work and told him not to come home.'

Paragraph Six of the National Union of Journalists' code of conduct says: 'Subject to the justification by over-riding considerations of the public interest, a journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress.' In the Willis case, 'door-stepping' reporters may not have realised that their presence was inflicting so much pain. But in other cases, the consequences must have been obvious.

Diane Simpson, for example, now looks at newspapers with 'a jaundiced eye'. She is a professional graphologist who had examined the so-called 'Jack the Ripper' letters for West Yorkshire Police in the late 1970s. According to evidence she has given to the Commons committee on press freedom and responsibility, chaired by Clive Soley MP, she embarked four years ago on research which required her to visit the murderer Peter Sutcliffe in Broadmoor Hospital. A journalist visiting another inmate copied her name as she signed in and observed her meeting with Sutcliffe. In January 1990, the People ran a story headed 'Ripper's Broadmoor kisses with a blonde', revealing a 38-year-old 'cuddly blonde' as 'the latest love of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe', who 'shared passionate kisses with the mass murderer during regular visits'.

'I'm 50, dark-haired and dreadfully overweight,' Ms Simpson, who denies kissing Sutcliffe, said last week. But there was worse to come. In the spring of 1991 an anonymous phone caller demanded money to prevent photographs of her and Sutcliffe from being published. She reported the call to the police. In October that year a reporter from the Star telephoned her, saying the newspaper planned to publish a story about her visits not only to Sutcliffe, but to two other notorious killers, Dennis Nilsen and Ian Brady. Denying she had ever visited either man, Ms Simpson advised him to check his facts.

Later that day she was 'ambushed' by another Star reporter and a photographer. 'I got off the train at Euston and, as I walked up the ramp, I saw a young woman with a large notice with my name on it. I introduced myself to her, and then the photographer appeared and started trying to take my picture. The young woman said, 'Do you deny you have visited Peter Sutcliffe?' I said, 'No.' She then said, 'Do you deny visiting Dennis Nilsen and Ian Brady?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Well, we believe you did.' As with her colleague earlier, I told her to check her facts. By this time the photographer was leaping about. The photographer then produced an old picture of me and said they would print that if I didn't co-operate.' The Star ran its report the next morning saying she had visited all three killers.

She feels she has 'more to fear from marauding journalists than from Peter Sutcliffe'. The offending publicity dismayed the Broadmoor authorities and almost led to her being banned from the hospital. ('I went back on my knees to Broadmoor.') She consulted two solicitors who considered the Star report was not libellous. 'I am an honest person trying to do a job,' she said. 'I was advised that it was pointless going to the Press Complaints Commission.'

Small and unintentional errors can lead to great personal distress. Graham Marsh and his wife, Sue, were celebrating the New Year with neighbours at their Manchester home two years ago when the smoke alarm went off in an adjoining room where their two-year-old son slept. They rescued the child and extinguished the fire. The Chorlton and Didsbury Messenger, a local 'free sheet', reported that the Marshes had been 'next door' when the fire broke out, implying that they were in a neighbour's house. Mrs Marsh was a registered child minder and, her husband said, the report 'could have had damaging consequences for her job'. But, because they did say 'next door' meaning 'in the next room' the editor refused to publish a retraction. The Press Complaints Commission upheld the couple's complaint. By then, however, the Messenger had ceased publication.

Other people feel they get a raw deal from the commission. Clare Maidment of Plaistow, West Sussex, was approached by reporters who said her husband (then in prison in America) had been married 12 times. 'They said they would print my letters (to him) if I didn't agree to be interviewed.' She agreed to the interview and a photograph. The result was an article headed, 'How a one-legged conman proved he was the marrying kind'.

Ms Maidment said: 'I work for an airline, and copies of the paper were on the plane. Everyone I worked with saw it. I've been inundated with phone calls from magazines wanting my story.'

Nevertheless, the Press Complaints Commission rejected her complaint of intrusion. It accepted the newspaper's statement that the letters were obtained legally and that it already had sufficient information to publish a story about Ms Maidment's polygamist husband, 'but wanted to invite her to tell her side of the story'.

But the commission has some satisfied customers. Eric McGraw, director of The New Bridge charity which runs a newspaper for prisoners, invited the football manager Brian Clough to talk to 'lifers' in Ashwell Prison. The Sun asked to use a picture the paper had printed of Mr Clough and several prisoners. Mr McGraw agreed 'on their assurance that the prisoners' faces would be blacked out'.

Under the headline, 'Clough's Murder United', the Sun ran the photograph without disguising the prisoners' faces. Mr McGraw said: 'Some were murderers, but others were not. They said, 'What are our families going to think of this when they open the Sun?' '

When Mr McGraw complained, the Sun's managing editor wrote to point out that none of the prisoners had complained, and confessing that 'clearly we owe you an apology', though not publishing one. The Commission upheld the complaint. The Sun published the adjudication.

(Photograph omitted)

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