Dominic Lawson: My Lord Lucan episode shows why Murdoch has got it right

I was given an insight into the red-tops, for whom murder and celebrity are meat and drink

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The Independent Online

Read all about it! Lady says she arranged flights for Lord Lucan's children to be seen by their dad in Africa! The murdering aristocrat was secretly smuggled out of Britain by his toff friends! Ex-cop confirms: I spoke to man who says he spoke to other man who swears he saw Lucan in Africa!

No, this is not a promotional trailer for the inaugural edition of this weekend's Sun on Sunday as it attempts to regain the maximum number of ex-News of the World readers. It is, in essence, how the BBC had been promoting on its online news pages a programme screened last night as part of its regional current affairs series Inside Out.

The lady concerned does not show her face or give her real name – making it impossible for other news media to test the veracity of her claim to have booked holidays for the Lucan children to be seen by their not-dead father. And because this mysterious woman – allegedly the former secretary of Lucan's friend John Aspinall – says the children were not allowed to know why they had been flown to Africa and were observed by Lucan "at a distance", it is equally difficult for those now grown-up children to refute the story.

For the record, Lady Lucan told the Daily Telegraph yesterday that the programme's claims were nonsense: "The children were wards of court, at boarding school. I was their carer. I would have known if they had gone to Africa. I had to get permission from the court to take them abroad. These are people making a fast buck out of the name Lucan."

The true facts, for the benefit of those few not familiar with the case, are that Lord Lucan had planned to murder his wife, with whom he had been contesting a bitter battle over custody of their children, but had bludgeoned to death the family nanny Sandra Rivett when he mistook her for his wife in the darkened basement of their Belgravia home. He then attacked Lady Lucan, before fleeing; his car was later found abandoned at Newhaven. It is generally believed, except by conspiracy theorists (oh, and the BBC) that he threw himself off the ferry and drowned. Lucan was declared dead in 1999, although the inquiry into the murder of Sandra Rivett has not been closed.

I am, however, the last person who should be sneering at the BBC for descending into red-top tabloid tactics (although it's tempting, given how much the corporation sets itself up as the paragon of responsibility in current affairs journalism). Nine years ago, as editor of the Sunday Telegraph, I bought (for £5,000) the serial rights to a book, Dead Lucky, by a retired Scotland Yard detective by the name of Duncan MacLaughlin. He claimed that Lucan had emerged in Goa, and assumed the name Barry Halpin: this person died in 1996 – with a notice from friends in the local paper concluding "Goodbye, old cock".

Not very Lord Lucan-like, you might think; but photographs of a booze-sozzled Halpin did indeed show a man looking quite like Lucan might have done, had the eighth earl spent 20 years living rough in a hippy commune. MacLaughlin insisted that he had had these photographs examined by experts in facial reconstruction, and... it was Lucan! Various other pieces of circumstantial "evidence" were adduced to add verisimilitude, at least, to the ex-cop's tale.

I was not convinced, but was attracted by the sheer bizarreness of the whole tale – and gave scarcely a thought to the likely concerns either of the Lucan family or that of his victim. So I bought it up, running it as the front of the Review section, with a picture of Halpin under the carefully non-committal headline, "Is this Lord Lucan?"

Reassured by the knowledge that a question can never be a lie, I put the same words below the newspaper's masthead, again accompanied by a picture of Halpin (who actually looked more like every schoolboy's image of Robinson Crusoe, if Crusoe had turned to the bottle).

MacLaughlin's story held, for several ... hours. A galvanised Sky News ran live news feeds from Lady Lucan's home. The Sunday Telegraph's sales ran at tens of thousands above normal levels. Leading bookshops instantly placed enormous orders for Dead Lucky. It was all quite exciting. But at around lunchtime on Sunday, the truth emerged. A number of Barry Halpin's friends got in touch with the media to say that this man was not Lord Lucan in disguise living under an assumed name, but a well-known character in the pubs and clubs of north-west England in the 1960s, who had always addressed his mates as "old cock".

He had indeed left these shores for Goa; but as the comedian Mike Harding said, that didn't mean that he was actually Lord Lucan: "I laughed until I cried when I saw the Sunday Telegraph: to think that anybody could mistake my old friend Barry Halpin for Lord Lucan!"

WH Smith, Waterstones et al immediately cancelled their orders for Dead Lucky. Almost 80,000 copies had to be pulped, at considerable cost to the intrepid publisher – whose boss wrote a touching letter of apology to me. I replied that he had nothing for which to apologise, at least as far as the newspaper was concerned. We had merely asked a question – and had enjoyed soaring sales off the back of it: neither had I received any letters from readers asking for their money back. Actually, I think they enjoyed the tale, to judge from the response.

Although a broadsheet journalist for my entire newspaper career, the episode did give me a brief insight into the wild and wacky world of the red-top press for whom murder, celebrity and cops with some hot information to sell are meat and drink. I suddenly appreciated just how much more gripped are the public with such material than with the most important stories about splits in the Cabinet. Sad to say, those don't increase the sales figures of even the most serious of our national newspapers, which goes some of the way to explaining why such titles as The Times (and The Independent) now give much more coverage than ever they did before of the doings of pop stars and actors.

Thus, while it would now be thought commercial suicide to launch a new upmarket Sunday newspaper, no one seems to be questioning Rupert Murdoch's business sense in launching the Sun on Sunday. I must declare my interest as a columnist for his Sunday Times, but I don't think you can fault the man's insight that in the end all newspapers, from the top of the market to the bottom, are about telling stories – and that the more vivid and compelling the tales, the more copies of the paper will be sold. Obviously, it would be better still if the stories were also true.