In a departure from this blog's usual jokey fisking, what follows is a guest post from fellow Manchester-dweller and fellow cool person Juliet Shaw. It's the story of how she agreed to be the subject of what turned out to be a deeply misleading Mail article, and her subsequent fight against it.
I grew up with the Daily Mail. When I was younger and living with my parents, they read it every day. As I got older and began to form my own opinions, I decided I didn’t like it and instead opted for what I thought to be the more independent viewpoint of The Guardian. However, I didn’t actively oppose the Daily Mail. I had no opinion on it, other than it wasn’t for me.
Pre-Facebook, pre-blogs and Twitter, if you didn’t like a particular newspaper, you didn’t buy it and could quite easily go about your life without becoming involved in any discussions about its content.
So when, in 2003, I received a request on Response Source (an online resource for journalists to request information from PR companies) from a freelance journalist working for the Daily Mail looking for people who had left the city to live in the country and the benefits it had brought, I decided to respond. I vaguely knew the journalist as she’d started work at the Manchester Evening News just a few weeks before I left my job there. I’d recently left Manchester to return to my home town in Cumbria with my two children (three and 10 at the time) because of an acrimonious relationship breakdown, and I was working as a freelance copywriter and PR consultant and keen to raise my professional profile in my new home town, where I lived in an unremarkable semi-detached house 10 minutes away from the beach.
What followed was a catalogue of events that proved just how little regard the Daily Mail has for the people it relies on for its content. Some might argue that the celebrities the Daily Mail and other tabloids pick apart on a daily basis deserve the negative coverage they get. After all, they’re only too keen to court publicity when it suits them, when they’ve got a new film or book to plug – so they’re fair game when it comes to exposés about their love life and can’t be surprised if they’re the subject of a negative article about their weight/hair/dress sense, right?
However, I wasn’t a celebrity. Some might be of the opinion that, working in PR, I knew the game and how it worked and that by putting myself forward to appear in a national newspaper, I too deserved everything I got. But my speciality at the time was business to business PR – writing case studies about wonderful things IT companies did and then getting them placed in the trade press. Everything I wrote was – and still is - backed up with statistics and evidence, and then sent to my interviewee to confirm that I’d quoted him/her correctly and in the right context. I’d never have dreamt of paraphrasing or using artistic licence – I was of the opinion that if I had to start making bits of the story up, then I didn’t really have a story.
So I naively (or stupidly, depending on how far you’re willing to push your sympathy levels) believed that when I was interviewed about the benefits of leaving the city to live in the country, my comments would be reflected accurately and I would have a nice bit of publicity in a national newspaper with which to promote my business.
My response to the journalist was met with a request for a photograph, and after sending it I was told I’d be ideal and that the feature would be a great plug for my business. Unfortunately, rather than promoting my business, the feature made me a laughing stock. I earned a reputation within my community for being a fantasist and a liar, and spent the next two years learning the intricacies of the laws of defamation and in order to try and salvage what was left of my reputation.
The whole episode started badly. I was alarmed by the line of questioning during the interview, which seemed entirely focused towards the number of men I’d been out with rather than the benefits of country living.
Then I was coerced into attending a photo-shoot in London – a round trip of 580 miles - after being told by the journalist that her “neck was on the line big-time” if I didn’t. Not wanting to be responsible for someone I barely knew getting into trouble and perhaps losing a commission, I reluctantly agreed to attend after they agreed to pay my travel costs and put me up in a hotel for the night – coming all the way from Cumbria, it couldn’t be done in a day. It took many weeks and countless emails to increasingly senior members of Daily Mail staff before my expenses were eventually reimbursed.
On 11 September 2003, the article appeared in the Femail section of the Daily Mail. I’ll reproduce it here – what was printed, along with what actually happened.
“Sex & the Country – What happened when four singletons, fed up with shallow urban lives, upped sticks in a quest for rural romance?”
Shallow urban lives? I didn’t have a shallow urban life. I had two children and a career. I’d just been through a very traumatic relationship breakdown and a period of severe depression. And I certainly didn’t force my children to move 100 miles in a ‘quest for rural romance’. I wanted a better life for us all, away from a situation that had caused me immense distress.
“Sex And The City is back on TV – but an increasing number of British career women are turning their backs on metropolitan life in favour of the traditional courting rituals of the countryside.”
So now it became clear that the article had never been about the benefits of leaving the city to live in the countryside, as it had been told to me. The article was a reposte to the final series of Sex And The City. I was never made aware of this. Had I known the feature was to take this angle, I would never have taken part.
“FEMAIL spoke to four, including Juliet Shaw, 31, a PR consultant, who moved from Manchester to Walney Island, Cumbria, in August 2000. She split from her partner four years ago and has two children, Amelia, four, and Bethany, ten.”
I was 33. I moved in April 2000. I’d split from my partner three years ago. Nothing defamatory there, but inaccurate nonetheless.
“She says she has been asked out on more dates in her three years in the country than in 20 years in the city.”
No I didn’t. Not true. I said I rarely went out and, other than two occasions which I’ll describe later, I didn’t meet men - repeatedly, in response to the increasingly probing questions about my love life.
That simple line made it all oh so much worse. I wasn’t being paraphrased, or speculated about. What was to follow was directly from me, in my own words. Or so the Daily Mail would have its readers believe.
“The ‘best’ man I met in my final year of being single in Manchester, a doctor, ‘forgot’ to tell me he was married until a few weeks after we met in a nightclub.”
Fabricated. All of it. In my final year of being in Manchester I was in a relationship with my daughter’s father. My final year of being single in Manchester? It had never been discussed. Without sitting down with a calender, I’d struggle to work out when that even was. Either way, I had certainly never had a relationship with a doctor, married or otherwise. During the interview, after racking my brains for romantic encounters following increasingly probing questions from the journalist, I had finally remembered a drunken snog I’d had with a friend of a friend on a night out around six months’ previously. He was a doctor, but he wasn’t married and there was certainly no relationship. We didn’t even exchange phone numbers.
“To me, it summed up the hypocrisy of the whole city experience, and I despaired of ever finding a man to settle down with.”
No I didn’t. I left Manchester because of an extremely traumatic relationship, and I would have been quite happy to never date again. As for the ‘hyprocisy of the whole city experience’, I don’t even know what this means.
“It was all the more difficult for me because I had two children from a previous relationship.”
What was difficult? Dating? I didn’t want to date. Before I left Manchester I was in a relationship, so no dating there. When I left, I was more than happy to be on my own with my girls. I certainly didn’t begrudge them from preventing me from going out on the pull.
“But I have been delighted to discover that most social events in the countryside are children friendly, such as garden parties, camping and walking on the beach.”
I’ve never been to a garden party in my life. I enjoy camping and we did walk on the beach regularly. I did these activities to have fun with my children, not in a desperate attempt to snare a man.
“In the city, dating revolves around the sort of places to which you can’t take children, such as bars and clubs.”
Does it? I wouldn’t know. I was in a relationship so didn’t go out dating.
“It was difficult to find a man when I could go out only if I had a babysitter.”
I already had one so wasn’t looking.
“My sister had lived on a farm in Cumbria for ten years, and she and her husband loved it so much that I decided to move nearby. I grew up in Derbyshire, so I was used to the pace of life in the countryside.”
No I didn’t. I spent a few years in Hadfield, Cheshire, but the majority of my early years were spent in Barrow-in-Furness. Again, nothing defamatory, just a simple inability to get things right.
“I now live in a gorgeous three-bedroom semi-detached house with a massive garden and its own beach.”
Now, this is where I started to become really alarmed. I lived on Walney Island which doesn’t have any houses that have their own private beach. You can walk all the way around the island on very public shores, and anyone familiar with the island will know this to be the case.
“I am a ten-minute drive from the Lakes, and it costs me just £400 a month, which is what I paid to live in a two-bedroom flat in Manchester. I have started my own PR business and because it’s online, it doesn’t matter where I am – I’ve been earning more than I ever did as a wage-slave in the city.”
Again, basic factual errors. I’d been working as a freelance PR consultant and copywriter for four years by 2003, and started doing so two years before I left Manchester. My business wasn’t ‘online’, whatever that may mean, and I was never a wage-slave in the city. I had a job I loved which I chose to leave after the birth of my second daughter.
“But most importantly, I’ve been asked out on more dates in the past three years than in the 20 years I spent in Manchester.”
Leaving aside the assertion that had I spent 20 years in Manchester which meant that, using the ages in the article, I would have been 11 when I left my family and moved there (and she’s already stated I grew up in Derbyshire), this was simply not true. It was made up.
“Eligible country bachelors have asked for my number in village pubs, on the high street, on the beach and at the local fete.”
Fabricated. All of it. Never said it.
“Now I’m more experienced at countryside dating, I take full advantage of all the opportunities there are to meet men.”
I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I had two young children. I worked from home. I rarely socialised. My idea of a day out was doing the big shop in Tesco.
“I’ve helped out on a local farm, feeding lambs and collecting eggs, because there were several young, fit and handsome men working there.”
My sister lived on a farm. I never helped out on it. Sometimes she gave me eggs, I never collected them. The only men who worked there were here husband, his father, his brother and, some years previously a man called Kevin who I shall refer to in more detail shortly.
“I would never have imagined myself in wellies scrabbling around in the dirt a year ago – I was more at home in designer stilletos – but I have to admit I really enjoyed it.”
Fabricated. I’ve never worn designer anything. I hate shopping. And the only time I’ve worn wellies and scrabbled around in dirt was when I went to Glastonbury in 1997.
“Being at the farm every weekend, I ended up getting to know one of the farmhands, Kevin, very well. He’s three years younger than me and we saw each other for a month before we drifted apart.”
Now the fabrication is damaging not just me, but other people. Kevin was a friend of my sister and her husband, and he had indeed worked at the farm. However, this was a couple of years previously and he’d been married at the time. We saw each other a couple of times long after he’d left the farm and long after he’d got divorced. This single sentence makes it appear that, again, I was dating a married man.
“It was so refreshing talking about nature and the countryside while sitting and cuddling on hay bales, rather than discussing something vacuous about work in a noisy city bar or club.”
Oh my. I laughed so hard when I read this (before the reality of the whole article hit in and I cried). I can categorically state that, prior to attending the photoshoot for the Daily Mail when we were asked to pose on bales of hay brandishing pitchforks, I had never sat on one, never mind cuddled on it. Totally, completely made up.
“Another great place to meet men is on the beach. There are always lots walking their dogs or riding a bike who will smile or stop to talk to me.”
There are men on the beach. Some of them will be on bikes, some of them will have dogs. However, I never said any of this.
“People aren’t afraid of each other the way they are in cities, where even making eye contact with someone can lead to verbal abuse. I’m also convinced the men you meet in the countryside are nicer characters than those in the city. They are easier to approach, less arrogant and not at all concerned iwth how you look or whether you’re wearing designer clothes.”
Not defamatory, but not true either. I never said any of it.
“The only thing I really miss is the shopping and the nightlife.”
I hate shoppping.
“But then I don’t feel the same kind of pressure to keep up with trends.”
What pressure? I’ve never felt any pressure to keep up with anything, except perhaps my rent.
“I’ve swapped my Jimmy Choos for Timberland boots, and I’ll never go back.”
I’ve never owned any Jimmy Choos or Timberland boots. I didn’t say it.
This article appeared in the week my youngest daughter started infant school. I’d been looking forward to it immensely, because I’d spent the last three years working from home and looking after two young children. Working from home meant I didn’t have the social aspects of life that working in an office could bring and being a single parent of two young children meant that nights out were rare. I’d suffered depression of varying degrees, particularly since the birth of my second daughter, and had been happy to stay at home with my girls. But I saw my youngest daughter starting school as an opportunity to meet some new people, make some new friends and the start of a new chapter in my life.
This article changed all that. When I went to school on the day it was published, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was audible mockery and thinly-disguised pointing and sniggering. I didn’t blame the perpetrators – after all, here was the braggart who lied in a national newspaper about having her own private beach and boasted of her endless pursuit of men on beaches and at garden parties. I would probably have done the same.
But there was no way of defending myself. I couldn’t approach every single person who sniggered at me in the street or while I was doing my shopping and ask them if they’d read the article, and explain I hadn’t said any of it.
Obviously, I wrote to complain. They responded that they were happy the article was an accurate reflection of what I’d said and were standing by it. I wrote again, pointing out in detail the discrepancies. Again, they stood by their article and told me that they would not enter into any further correspondence with me and considered the matter closed.
I certainly didn’t consider the matter closed. My name, image and brief details of my life had been used to fabricate a story which bore no resemblance to me or my life, then presented as fact, said by me, in my own words. It was damaging to me, my children, my friends and had a significantly negative impact on my life.
I emailed the other three women who’d been interviewed for the article – I found their addresses on an email the journalist had sent about the photoshoot. They each confirmed that they’d been horrified by the article, that it bore no relationship to anything they’d said and that they too had complained to Associated Newspapers and been similarly stonewalled. Sadly, after consulting solicitors they decided not to pursue any legal action because of the prohibitive costs.
I made my own enquiries with a solicitor and he was very sympathetic, but told me that I’d need a five-figure sum to consider bringing a claim.
Not having a five-figure sum, but determined to bring the Daily Mail to account for their damaging article, I decided to pursue my own claim.
So I researched the laws of defamation on the internet, identified the areas appropriate to me and acted as a litigant in person in an action against Associated Newspapers.
In response to my original claim for defamation, the Daily Mail brought a claim against me citing that I had no prospect of success and proposing that my claim be thrown out. This meant that instead of Associated Newspapers responding to my grievances, I was forced to defend myself to them and prove that I had been wronged. They also applied for me to pay their costs.
It took two years of legal wranglings before the claim was finally heard in front of Mr Justice Tugendhadt in the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
I won’t go into detail of his summing up – I’d have to go down to the cellar and sift through boxes and boxes of paperwork to do that, and I’ve already spent two years of my life on this. (You could probably double that if you included all the time I spend jabbering on about it to people I meet at parties.) But Mr Justice Tugendhadt ruled in my favour, and gave me leave to proceed to a full defamation trial with jury. The two or three points he didn’t allow weren’t on the basis that he believed them to be true – it was because although it was accepted they were fictional, I couldn’t prove that my reputation had been harmed as a result of them being in a national newspaper: technicalities. He also declined Associated Newspapers application for costs against me of around £24,000.
Immediately following the ruling, their barrister approached me outside the court and asked what I required to settle. Having not thought that far ahead – I hadn’t dared to believe I might win that round of my battle, so hadn’t given my next move any further thought – I declined to answer, asking her to contact me in writing.
All I’d ever wanted was an admission that they had got it wrong. If, in the response to my original letter, they’d have apologised for the freelance journalist getting some facts wrong, or admitted their sub editors had been a little heavy-handed, I would have left it there. But I was not prepared to be defamed in a national newspaper and then bullied into silence.
While I was considering my position, I received a call from the senior partner in the law firm representing Associated Newspapers. He ever so kindly pointed out that trials cost lots and lots of money, and it would be such a shame if they were forced to take my house off me were I to lose such a complicated case. I pointed out my house was rented and I had nothing to lose. He then very sympathetically informed me it would be just horrid if they had to take my business assets in order to recover their costs should the outcome of the trial not be favourable for me. I thanked him for his concern, and pointed out that as a freelance working from home, my only asset was my brain and I was more than happy to put it to good use fighting my claim to the end, whatever the outcome.
Surprisingly, the next day I received a letter asking me what I wanted in order to avoid the need for a full trial. It was simple – always had been. I wanted an apology. I wanted them to admit they’d fabricated the article, made me look a fool and damaged my reputation.
And given they’d tried to make me pay upwards of £20,000 in costs just to get to that point, I thought it only fair I was reimbursed for my losses: for the money I didn’t earn when I was spending time preparing my claim and subsequent defence; for the reams and reams of evidence and statements I’d had to prepare in triplicate; for the money I’d spent travelling to London to attend the hearing.
I worked it out as accurately as possible – the number of days, the photocopying, the train tickets – and asked for exactly that, with a breakdown of how I’d come to my figure. Given that the partner in Associated Newspapers’ law firm had warned me a trial would cost upwards of £100,000, I could have plucked a number from thin air and added a few zeros. But it was never about the money. It was the principle. It was about standing up to a corporation that thought nothing of using my image, my name and my location alongside a story purporting to be about me, in my own words, but that bore no resemblance to my life or my values. It was about wanting them to accept responsibility for the damage they’d done to my life.
So I sent them my conditions to settle; my costs, and an apology. They agreed to one or the other. I could have the costs and the matter would be resolved. Or they would print an apology, but offer no financial recompense.
By this time, I had spent two years bringing this case to court and defending myself against a national corporation. I was tired of fighting, and although I had been determined to see it through to the bitter end, the prospect of recouping some of my losses and never having to spend another night sifting through hundreds of pages of statements and quotes was too appealing to refuse. I also suspected that had I agreed to an apology being printed, it would never have found its way into the newspaper and I would have to start another lengthy legal battle. And I knew that if I did proceed to full trial with jury, and the jury ruled in my favour but their settlement was the same or less than the figure I’d requested, I’d be liable for all the costs of the trial.
So I went for the money. It wasn’t a massive amount, certainly not life changing. The majority of it went to my mum, who’d been bailing me out when my earnings dipped due to spending so much time on the case. A couple of weeks later my engine blew in my car, so the rest went on a second-hand Punto. That’s the sums we’re talking about, not Ferarri territory. Not even close.
In the five or so years that have passed since my claim was settled, things have got much, much worse. The huge growth in the Mail’s online presence has meant that its search for content becomes ever more desperate, and it gleefully prints pictures of 15 year old girls in bikinis - “Hasn’t she grown up!”- while whipping the nation into an outraged frenzy by falsely claiming Muslims insist extractor fans are removed because they’re offended by the smell of bacon, or that schools are being forced to teach ‘gay maths’ to corruptable young minds. But the majority of the people the Daily Mail tells lies about won’t do anything about it. Bringing a libel claim is prohibitively expensive, and there’s no legal aid. And for those who have the time and inclination to take the law into their own hands, it just got a lot more difficult.
The same judge that ruled in my favour, Mr Justice Tugendhat, ruled in June 2010 that in order to bring a claim for libel, claimants must prove that they have been substantially affected by the offending article, rather than simply being able to demonstrate an adverse effect of publication. The ruling was made in response to a claim against Lynn Barber and the Telegraph Newspaper Group over a book review, and applauded by journalists and news organisations as a step forward for press freedom.
Unfortunately, it also made it much easier for unscrupulous tabloids to print whatever they like about members of the public in order to fit their own agenda, with very little prospect of recrimination.