“This is what we do, we go out and destroy other people’s lives,” was how former News of the World news editor, Greg Miskiw once characterised the ethos of his paper. As a strap-line for the cover of my book, News of the world? Fake Sheikhs & Royal Trappings, it was irresistible in its pithy summary of the editorial priorities of Britain’s biggest selling Sunday paper. And this fact in itself is one of the most depressing comments on the sleazy, voyeuristic tastes of a significant section of the British public and their appetite for salacious personal and sexual details of figures in the public eye – sportspersons, politicians, royals and entertainers. Whether these details are real or made up makes no difference.
This appetite exists partly because it is regularly, cheaply and easily satisfied by papers like the News of the World and the Daily Mail, who campaign vigorously with self-righteous and spurious claims for the inalienable right of the British public to know such things.
But the naked truth of Miskiw’s statement is clearly demonstrated in last Sunday’s Observer, where Polly Vernon, despite her own breathy tabloid delivery, offers the reality of French fashion model, Vanessa Perroncel’s treatment earlier this year by a pack of baying shag-hounds scenting a vulnerable prey.
It is outside the comprehension of the average tabloid journalist that a man – especially a footballer – could be alone with an attractive woman for any length of time without her underwear coming off. Thus, for them there was no question that when Vanessa was visited by John Terry (former England footer skipper, and best friend of Wayne Bridge, her former long-term boyfriend and father of her son) there was no question that sex had been had. The Screws hack, Guy Basnett decided to embellish this fallacious if fairly pedestrian story with claims of subsequent pregnancy, abortion and a £20,000 pay-off.
And with no interest in what these entirely unfactual claims would do to the parties involved, the story was splashed across the front and several pages of the paper and succeeded in inflicting profound damage on Ms Perroncel, on John Terry, his wife and their marriage, and potentially on Jaydon, Vanessa’s son by Wayne Bridge.
While the rubbish press all speculated vigorously on how much Max Clifford would acquire for her for a major Shag’n’Brag piece, she kept dignified and quiet. She didn’t want Max to sell her side of the story but he couldn’t do much to stop the Screws running their version either, as he was at that point suing them himself (and won £1m for having his phone hacked by them.)
Vanessa since then has consistently denied that there was any truth in the story, while she was preoccupied with coming out of a six year relationship with Bridge and sorting out parental arrangements for their child.
But there was no let up in the papers’ blood-letting. Vanessa was consistently portrayed as a scheming, self-interested harlot and, on the web, the bone-headed, ignoramus that is Jo British Public laid into her viciously with their own nasty comments and misconceptions.
This witch-hunt by a section of the British public of an entirely innocent woman, also a foreign visitor to Britain, was hugely distressing to her and seeing the apparently unmonitored online comments frequently left her weeping in bewilderment.
But that’s what the News of the World is best at – destroying other people’s lives, to the extent of several suicides over the last thirty years.
Now Vanessa Perroncel is seeking redress, on behalf of herself, her son and, indirectly, the thousands of others who have been callously damaged by the paper’s lies or gratuitous invasion of privacy.
This evil old harridan of a rag has for years consistently broken laws with the full connivance of its management and must by now be a serious embarrassment to its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. But, as I have strongly urged in my book and in this blog over the last few years, it is clear that a statutory Law of Privacy must be created, to clarify for newspapers exactly how far they can go, and the criteria by which revelations of an individual’s private life can be deemed in the public interest.
Now, at last, blindingly obvious as this is, politicians (and even some members of the press, if not the Mail or the Screws) are beginning to see the logic and necessity of such legislation.
May they not this time be deterred from curbing the excesses of the red-top hacks by intensive lobbying and covert threats, as the last government was when they tried to introduce custodial sentences for journalists breaching the Data Protection Act. It had to leave the clause strangled and dangling uselessly to avert the wrath of Ken High and Wapping.
In the meantime, it is to be hoped that the British courts will give the News of the World the serious kicking it deserves for its nasty, callous attempt to destroy yet another life, and that Ms Perroncel’s dignity and innocence are vindicated.
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