Joan Smith: I knew then the Ripper tape was fake. It changed my life for ever

Like most women in the North I felt threatened by this man
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The Independent Online

It all came back to me last week, vividly and painfully, when a man from the Sunderland area was arrested and charged in connection with the hoax tape. At that time, I was a young reporter on a radio station in Manchester, where the Ripper had murdered two of his victims. Like most women in the north of England, I felt threatened by him, but I was also one of a tiny handful of women reporters covering the case, hugely outnumbered by male detectives and crime correspondents. It's no exaggeration to say the experience changed my life; few women in their 20s can have been exposed to such an astounding degree of casual everyday misogyny, prompting me to write my best-known book.

If one episode stands out, it is that press conference in Moss Side police station in Manchester. It followed a meeting in the same room at which the tape was played to local prostitutes - a cheap publicity stunt, for by the end of the day there can hardly have been anyone left in the country who hadn't heard it on TV or radio. As I walked in, burdened with a huge old-fashioned UHER tape recorder, a senior detective mistook me for a prostitute. "Sorry, love," he called out, "you're too late, the pros' conference is over." Moments later, he was bantering with my male colleagues, who affected to be worried about catching STDs from chairs the prostitutes had sat on. "I kept out of their way just in case," said a policeman responsible for protecting the city's women from a sadistic killer.

After Sutcliffe's arrest, it emerged that the police had interviewed him on nine occasions, but he never even made it to the D62 file, the list of 1,000 men considered the most likely suspects. Some of those interviews took place after the arrival of the hoax tape, by which time detectives had been told they could exclude anyone who didn't have "a north-eastern [Geordie] accent". So how did they come to place such confidence in that melodramatic fraud? The answer, I think, lies in the psychology of George Oldfield, an old-fashioned macho copper and the detective in charge of the West Yorkshire Police Ripper Squad. For Oldfield, the Ripper investigation was personal; he was convinced the killer wanted to meet him and the tape flattered his vanity by addressing him by name. In fact, there was every reason to doubt its authenticity. Letters written by the man who made the tape got the number of Ripper killings wrong and one of the surviving victims, Olive Smelt, had told detectives categorically that her attacker was a local man, with a Yorkshire accent. They dismissed her evidence, in a way that symbolises for me the deep-seated misogyny that permeated the inquiry. For more than five years, men investigated and men wrote about a man who was slaughtering women; when it came to evaluating evidence, they preferred the voice of a male hoaxer to that of a woman who had actually spoken to the killer. Inexperienced as I was, I remember thinking bitterly that this was an investigation in which the only role reserved for women was as silent victims.