When money dictates who is guilty or innocent

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HAS Louise Woodward sold her story to a newspaper, like the two British nurses freed from jail in Saudi Arabia? Woodward herself says not, although yesterday's Daily Mail filled its front page with the headline "Louise: her own story". The Mail printed a prominent denial that it had paid Woodward or her family for the two-page interview inside the paper, even though the Daily Telegraph confidently announced: "Woodwards paid pounds 40,000 by Mail". The Telegraph quoted a Mail executive, who admitted that the paper paid money to Mr and Mrs Woodward in November, "when many people believed Woodward's conviction for murder had been a miscarriage of justice".

This is a very grey area, for it now appears that Woodward's parents - though not Louise herself - received cash which they said they needed to pay her legal bills. This revelation gave the green light to the Sun, which announced that "lying Woodwards raked in pounds 40,000 for nanny's story", and quoted the angry response of an American lawyer. "This news," he said, "establishes that Louise Woodward lied when she repeatedly denied that either she or her family had sold the rights to her story."

This is a serious charge, going to the heart of Louise Woodward's veracity. If she has lied about selling her story, does it also mean that she lied in court in Boston in November and when she arrived in England last week? For the moment, we do not know the extent to which Louise was involved in the negotiations, if at all. What last week's events confirm is that money, not evidence, has become the central issue in cases where people convicted of serious crimes have co-operated with journalists - Woodward, the Saudi nurses, and the convicted child-killer Mary Bell. And that, no matter how many column inches it generates, money is nothing more than an old-fashioned red herring.

Woodward's case has done even more than the others to expose the way in which money is not just influencing but determining the type of coverage these stories receive. Mary Bell's decision to accept a payment from the author Gitta Sereny provoked ferocious accusations of "blood money" when it was disclosed in April - amid declarations that everything would have been different if only she had talked to Sereny for nothing. This always seemed a specious argument, and it was clear when Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan arrived back in Britain that there was a direct relationship between ringing endorsements of their innocence - or sneaky insinuations of their guilt - and who had won the rights to their respective stories.

Last week, before the story of the Daily Mail payment to Mr and Mrs Woodward appeared in America, there was a half-hearted attempt to make a fuss about cash in the Woodward case, prompted by the fact that Louise flew home first-class after British Airways upgraded her. The reason it was half- hearted was that journalists know that airlines willingly upgrade passengers when there are unfilled seats elsewhere, so the Sun restricted itself to a jibe about her "red carpet treatment". What then became apparent was that, without direct evidence that Woodward herself had accepted money, the tabloids were comically uncertain about how to cover her return. Used to making snap judgements about character, they found themselves floundering in the wake of Woodward's composed performance at Thursday's press conference. And so, bereft of their usual crude mechanisms for taking sides, they turned to experts.

The Sun, whose own reporter spent most of a page agonising over whether he believed Woodward's protestations that she did not harm Matthew Eappen, turned with relief to Jane Lyle, author of a book entitled Body Language. Lyle detected "sadness and a look of terror" before deciding that Woodward was innocent - a conclusion based in part on the way she kept her hands open on her lap. "There was nothing," Lyle finished magisterially, "to show me that Louise is covering up in any way." In the Express, Oliver James, a psychologist, also focused on Woodward's hands, but offered a dramatically different interpretation.

"Before speaking," he observed, "she reached up and pushed her hair back, scratching her ear. Students of lying call this The Ear Rub, an unconscious attempt by liars to 'hear no evil' by blocking the ear so that you do not hear your own voice telling lies." This gesture was followed by the equally incriminating "Nose Touch", which James decoded as an attempt to block "dishonest thoughts" and "the wickedness that is about to happen". Even Woodward's opening words, "You have to forgive me" - a reference to the absence of a prepared speech - made him wonder "was there anything to forgive?"

In my view, serving up this kind of tosh to order is pretty unforgivable, but that is a matter for Mr James's conscience. What is fascinating is that throughout last week's emotional reporting of Woodward's return no one showed much interest in the medical evidence at her trial. What her defence team demonstrated was that the injury to Matthew Eappen was probably old - and, as a consequence, it could not be said with any certainty who had caused it. This does not let Woodward off, but it does raise serious questions about the safety of her conviction. Instead, what we got was an ever more heated argument about money - further confirmation that the tabloids inhabit a universe in which guilt or innocence of crimes such as murder or manslaughter is determined by the simple expedient of writing a large cheque.

IS NEW LABOUR'S love affair with the Sun beginning to lose its lustre? An event took place last week which seems to me of some importance, although I have not seen it remarked elsewhere. To be precise, a reporter from the Sun rang the Prime Minister's office and posed a question which a spokeswoman declined to answer. I would like to think that this unprecedented declaration of independence marks the beginning of a new relationship with the Murdoch press. But I fear it has more to do with the question, which was whether Mr Blair has a G-string in his underwear drawer. "I can't really say," a press officer told the paper. "I don't think I should discuss the Prime Minister's taste in underwear." You can almost hear the poor woman desperately trying to remember whether Peter Mandelson has ever laid down the New Labour line on thongs.