Sarah Sands: The trouble with Heather

The press is out to get her, she screams, the same way it hunted Diana, and now Kate McCann. But in the long run the media's judgment is sound. The famous get the coverage they deserve

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Was Heather Mills hunted by the press because of her innocent virtue? Was there something about a suffering woman showing a Christ-like love for others that conjured up the mythical beast? "I've had worse press than a paedophile or a murderer and I've done nothing but charity for 20 years," she squealed piteously in a television interview last week.

Heather has been mocked for comparing herself to Diana, Princess of Wales, and to Kate McCann, but there are genuine parallels. Earl Spencer spoke with bitter bemusement at his sister's funeral. "I don't think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling."

Gerry and Kate McCann have literally been accused of being paedophiles and murderers. Since their daughter disappeared there have been hundreds of what Heather Mills calls "abusive articles" and thousands of empathetic ones. This week a German satirical magazine carried a spoof advertisement displaying a range of Madeleine products. The McCanns' response to each fresh media wound is an expression of exhausted pain and bewilderment.

The distress of Heather Mills, of Diana, Princess of Wales, and of Kate McCann springs from different sources, but the reproachful gaze at the media is the same. Terence Blacker suggested in The Independent on Friday that media bullies single out disintegrating blondes for torture. Fortunately, Amy Winehouse, Cherie Blair and Liza Minnelli provide some follicular balance. Are we running some kind of Abu Ghraib? Do we sit in our conferences like a bunch of hyenas, thinking up new strategies for tearing the flesh from our victims? Did Tony Blair recognise with terrible posthumous clarity that the Fourth Estate was actually a red-eyed feral beast? And is Alastair Campbell compelled to roam the earth like a ragged holy man warning of the wickedness of the British press?

It would make things much simpler if the media were always monstrous and their subjects newborn babes. There are still some people who do not wish to appear in newspapers or on television and their unveiling is blood sport. They may be reclusive writers, or children of tyrants or pop stars on the road to ruin. But on the whole, if people leave newspapers alone, then they can be sure of privacy. The truth is that public figures want media coverage on their own terms and then howl to the heavens when the wind changes direction.

Here is an example of the unintended consequences of media management. The formidable writer Gitta Sereny came to see me in secret some years ago, when I was deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph. She has written an authorised biography of Mary Bell, who had murdered two boys aged four and three, when she was 10 years old. Bell, who had been given full legal anonymity after serving her sentence, was now an adult with a child of her own. Bell wanted the book to be published in order to redeem her public image. It explained the mitigating causes of her crime (abuse and neglect by her parents) and gave a painful account of her punishment.

The higher purpose of the book was to call for penal reform for child criminals. Mary Bell was also to share the considerable financial proceeds of the book's serialisation. The account of Mary Bell's life was so fascinating and so well-written that I was tempted to serialise the book in the newspaper. Thankfully, the editor, Charles Moore, was a man of moral inflexibility and he turned it down. The book was serialised instead in The Times with a long introduction about its literary value and reforming social purpose.

All this got lost in the wash so far as the tabloids were concerned. A murderer willingly puts herself in the public domain, in order to give her own flattering narrative and to pick up some dosh. Coquettishness exudes an irresistible scent for investigative journalists. Within days Mary Bell was being door-stepped at her secret address. Sadly, her daughter had not known of her mother's true identity until those flash bulbs were popping outside the front window. The British press is crass and rough and sometimes undiscerning. But I do not think it is wicked and sadistic, as Heather Mills suggests.

The author Robert Harris described it best when he consoled Tony Blair and Prince Charles after some press turbulence: "The media is a cavalcade, it passes, ignore it," he said. The strange thing is that many who have been flattened by the advance guard of news and pictures followed by the back-up fleet of columns written by people who have never met you but seem to know you, then miss the attention once it has gone.

This may be a psychological condition – call it Natascha Kampusch syndrome – but public figures who bitterly denounce the press are sometimes the first to invite it back in.

Why did Heather Mills go on television in order to complain about media attention? Why had she hired a press officer, a former editor of the News of the World, if she wanted the tabloid papers to leave her alone? She did not want to be ignored after all. She wanted to be portrayed according to her own self image. As a beautiful, good, wronged wife. Because she is clearly in such a state of distress she did not assemble her evidence very methodically. She claimed that her sister had been "crying her eyes out because that awful Jordan and Peter Andre did a joke on Sunday". Perhaps fearful of a shadowy bathos in her defence, she piled on "six amputee girls crying their eyes out because they're getting bullied at school". She spoke of death threats, although it was not clear from whom. The press? All these terrible things happened because of the pursuit of her by the media. But there was a worse outrage. "I'm gagged at the moment, I'm not allowed to say a word while the media is fed this spin by a certain corner."

So, despite the death threats, despite being labelled a "whore and a gold digger" by this evil institution, Heather Mills retains her touching faith that justice lies with the press. If she could just have her say, the public would see how lovable she is and how badly she has been used. She also implicitly alleges that her enemy is not the press but her husband's use of it. A dear friend of mine, the late journalist Frank Johnson, was perpetually involved in feuds. He would phone me triumphantly to say that he had given a story about one of his enemies to some newspaper diary. Once it had appeared, he was always deflated. It has been wilfully misconstrued, or given an ambiguous pay-off line. "Well what did you want it to say?" I would ask in exasperation. "I wanted it to say that X is a bastard," he answered in an urchin voice.

The grandeur of the British press, the greatest, maybe only defence of it, is that it has a sort of integrity. Of course there are influences and cosy deals at work, but they rarely prevail. When people complain about stories appearing in the papers I always ask: "But is it true?" The aggrieved person usually hesitates. It may be factually correct but it is unfair. They were not feeling well that day, the story was too selective, it lacked nuance, it was just plain unflattering.

In my experience, stories cause far less trouble than photographs. "Did you have to use that photograph of me?" an interviewee will cry, ignoring the fact that he has been called a crackpot/fool/wife beater.

The connection between Heather Mills, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Kate McCann is that they have all wanted to control the press, just as Thetis the sea nymph ruled the sea.

The McCanns had a heartbreakingly simple purpose, which was to find their lost daughter. They vowed to keep Madeleine on the front pages and their wish has been cruelly granted. The newspapers do not write about Madeleine from idle malice. The Portuguese police have been conducting their investigation and they have used the press to flush out suspects – including the McCanns.

The newspapers have become wretched go-betweens between the two camps. And the Daily Express made the callous calculation that it did not matter which side was right or what the evidence amounted to, because putting Madeleine in the headline increased sales either way. There have been calls of righteous fury this week to stop hunting Kate McCann to her grave. Of course, I feel shame and alarm. But a question nags at me. Who is it exactly that is hunting her now? The press are dancing around like ostriches but where is the predator? The McCanns have a professional press officer who co-ordinates landmarks, such as Gerry's return to work this week, and fresh appeals. Investigations continue. There is nothing more sinister. It is true that a month ago columnists expressed doubts about the couple and now they are defending their innocence like courtroom Portias. This is in line with the public, who have been all over the place before settling firmly inside the McCann camp. The uncertainty is not just stoked-up press hysteria. The case of Madeleine McCann is glaringly unsolved. That is what tortures her mother. The press has been a friend and an additional misery for the McCanns. But it is a sideshow. What matters to Kate is that her daughter is missing.

I think Heather Mills confuses the primary source of her unhappiness with the aggravating secondary one. Her troubles lie in her bloody divorce. The noises off from the press gallery are surely less important. Her unhinged television performances are partly frustration that the press does not ceaselessly trumpet her wronged innocence. It does not pay enough attention to her litany of grievances, it is too easily side-tracked by the conflicting narrative of her husband.

Like my friend Frank Johnson, Heather wants simplicity and consistency. Why can't the press just describe Paul McCartney as a bastard? It was the same sense of frustration that impelled Diana, Princess of Wales, to wage an astonishingly reckless public relations battle with her husband through the press. Her interview with Martin Bashir was one of the greatest moments of television drama. I can still scarcely believe she did it. Like Heather, she referred to powerful institutional forces against her. Heather married an icon, Diana married the Prince of Wales. Both saw themselves as Joan of Arcs, pitting their poor maimed frames against masculine power and authority.

Did Diana's use of the media to turn the public against her husband lead inexorably to the hunt in the Alma tunnel? Is it always a devil's pact? What of Heather's claim that she only ever wanted to promote her charities rather than herself? It would be a bad business if anybody engaging with the press for professional or altruistic reasons had to renounce all rights to privacy and compassion. But I do not believe this is true. Richard Curtis, for instance, raises vast amounts through Comic Relief while remaining private.

The media have an instinct for those who are drawn to charity for its own sake and those who have more complicated relationships with good causes. The British media machine may be an unlovely thing but there is a rough justice to it. It cannot be manipulated for long. Even proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch cannot wholly control the ebb and flow. It is not surprising if public sympathy is with Heather Mills this week. But her tragedy lies within herself, not the press. The media is not the cause but the mirror.

Further listening: 'Inside Story' on the press and the McCanns, Radio 4, Tuesday 9am

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