Joan Smith: Bullies love a weakling – and Heather fits the bill

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The Independent Online

For anyone who imagined that apologies to Kate and Gerry McCann in two popular newspapers marked a new era of decency and compassion in the British media, the front page of yesterday's Daily Express was instructive. It reserved the bottom half (and much larger type) for its favourite hate figure, moving seamlessly from grovelling to the McCanns to savaging "fantasist Heather".

This is the former model Heather Mills, who has just emerged from a bruising divorce battle with Sir Paul McCartney; Mills has more money than the McCanns, following her £24m settlement, but editors know she has little chance of winning a libel action after the judge, Mr Justice Bennett, subjected some of her claims to scathing criticism.

Bullies love a weakling, which is how the mass-market papers regard Mills after her mauling in court. The Daily Mirror's front page characterised her as "Lady Liar" while the Sun imposed the made-up word "Pornocchio" over a close-up of her face. Yesterday's editions agreed it was the most important story in the world and carried lengthy quotes from Bennett's 58-page judgement in which Mills' more fanciful claims, such as helping the former Beatle to revive his career, were dismissed as fantasy. The Sun even questioned her fitness to bring up her four-year-old daughter with Sir Paul; readers were left in little doubt about the folly of leaving the little girl in the care of a monster whose crimes, it seems, rank only a little lower than those of Slobodan Milosevic.

Mills is a volatile, egotistical blonde who makes things up and courts publicity. Much the same could be said of the late Princess of Wales, with whom the Express is preposterously obsessed. Both women displayed appalling judgement on occasions but the Express has set itself up as the champion of Princess Diana while being quite merciless in its attacks on Mills, a working-class woman who got above herself and married a national treasure. From the beginning, Mills has been contrasted unfavourably with McCartney's first wife Linda, who died from cancer in 1998 and became an almost saintly figure. At the time of her death, her grieving widower even exhorted us to give up eating meat in a tribute to her memory, revealing an unappealing combination of solipsism and sentimentality in his character.

Among observers with long memories, Linda's posthumous canonisation has raised eyebrows, for there was a time when Linda Eastman, as she then was, was loathed for the straightforward offence of marrying a Beatle. Unlike McCartney's posh ex-girlfriend Jane Asher, Linda was an American rock chick, a photographer who mixed with bands like the Rolling Stones.

It's arguable whether Linda was hated quite as much as John Lennon's second wife, the Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, who has been accused of everything from influencing her husband's politics to breaking up the Beatles. But Linda's ability as a photographer was discounted for a long time and a TV movie showed her in bed with Jim Morrison of The Doors, as well as suggesting that she had affairs with other rock stars before her marriage to McCartney.

Marrying a Beatle is a dangerous move for a woman, in other words, and Heather Mills always risked being the unpopular second wife who distracted McCartney from his grief. Long before the marriage went wrong, cruel jokes about her amputated leg were commonplace and Mills was portrayed from the start as a gold-digger. That "Pornocchio" headline in yesterday's Sun conflated the judge's remarks about her lack of credibility as a witness with old Sunday-newspaper claims that she once worked as a call girl, which is also the subliminal message of calculations dividing her divorce settlement into an hourly rate.

Such slurs are hard to reconcile with a little-remarked passage in Bennett's judgement where he accepted that Mills was "a kind and loving person who was deeply in love" with McCartney and tried to help him through his grief for Linda. Biased though the judge's summary was in favour of the former Beatle, Bennett implied that any insufficiency of love in the marriage was actually on McCartney's side, due to the fact that he was still "very emotionally tied" to Linda.

In that sense, Mills is right to believe she's had a raw deal. She dreamt of becoming the wife of a famous man but did not realise that he had fantasies of his own, marrying an attractive younger woman when he hadn't got over the loss of his first wife. Mills behaved foolishly when the marriage failed but she does not deserve the treatment she has had in the mass-market press. Its merciless bullying of an unstable, vulnerable woman is a better guide to its values than any amount of apologising to Kate and Gerry McCann.