The Trouble with the Tabloids

( what really happened and how it affected the lives of the McGann family)

This is a reprint of a Guardian article from the Media supplement of last October (1997).
Taken from Tribute to a Goddess: Catherine Zeta-Jones

Three years ago, the People snapped Paul McGann greeting his friend Catherine Zeta Jones with a fleeting luvvie kiss. A full-scale press hunt was launched to expose him. Paul and his wife Annie have lived with the repercussions ever since. Now, for the first time, they tell Roy Greenslade about their nightmare and why the death of Princess Diana has prompted them to complain to the PCC.

There was surprising enthusiasm among tabloid editors for the proposed changes to their code of practice. They concede that they might have "gone over the top" in harassing Princess Diana, but argue that hers was an isolated case. The industry's self regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission, broadly agrees, reiterating that invasions of privacy are rare. What the PCC means is that complaints are rare. Many victims of intrusion don't go to the PCC.

Here is just one example, a saga of press intrusion, harassment and intimidation, all based on an initial lie which stemmed from the misguided activities of the paparazzi. That falsehood continues to be repeated in spite of on-the-record denials.

In one sense, it is an extraordinary story. Readers who have had the good fortune never to come into contact with newspapers will be amazed. In another sense, seen from the perspective of all of us in the industry, it is very ordinary. Just another tabloid tale, an indictment of all (including me) who are, or have been, tabloid journalists.

For three years, Annie and Paul McGann nursed a grievance against the tabloids, refusing to make a formal complaint about a string of incidents involving several daily and Sunday papers. They told PressWise, the ethics media body that helps people with their complaints about print or broadcast journalism, but not the PCC.   It was Diana's death which changed the McGanns' minds.

Eight days after the crash, Annie sent a lengthy description of their plight to PCC chairman Lord Wakeham. "I want the PCC to know the full story," she wrote. "I want to complain officially about the behaviour of the press people we have encountered. I have not sent the PCC this before because I did not trust the organisation to treat it in confidence. How can the public trust the PCC when it is associated with the very editors who generate this problem in the first place?"

It began in the summer of 1994, when Paul McGann met Catherine Zeta Jones on the film set of Catherine The Great. Paul is a 37 year old actor with a fine track record in films and television. Trained at RADA, he portrayed The Monocled Mutineer on TV, co-starred in the cult movie Withnail And I, and is the current Doctor Who. But he is a distinctly unstarry star, largely having managed to keep his name out of the tabloid headlines.

Catherine, 27, has been a tabloid obsession since appearing in TV's The Darling Buds Of May. Pictures of her at premieres and parties appear regularly in papers. As Paul has pointed out: "They are fixated with her body."

The pair became friends while filming in Germany and Austria. "Friends" as in mates; not lovers. While they were shooting in Berlin, Paul's wife Annie visited with their two young sons, Joseph, then five, and Jake, three, and thought Catherine "very sweet and friendly." By chance, Catherine and Annie found themselves on the same flight back to London and got on so well that Catherine confided in her about her personal problems.

A couple of months later, Paul began his next project, making a e BBC series about the Irish famine, The Hanging Gale. It also involved his three brothers - Mark; Stephen and Joe - and was shot in the little Donegal town of Ramelton.

A week into filming, Paul flew off to London to do a voice-over, telling Annie he would be meeting Catherine for a chat and to pick up some pictures taken of them and their friends on the Catherine The Great set. He'd agreed to meet Catherine outside the office of a film industry insurance doctor near Sloane Square. When she emerged, she spotted Paul in his car, got in, and greeted him with a traditional 'luvvie kiss'.

After a minute or two, they left the the car where it was and started to walk to a nearby hotel for afternoon tea. Catherine explained that she couldn't be too long on a public street because she was often followed by freelance photographers. She was upset, she told Paul, and had had a horrible day. She was getting a bad time from her record company because she had chosen to make another film rather than concentrating on her singing. She was near to tears and Paul sympathetically put his arm around her shoulder.

Suddenly Catherine stopped. She had spotted a camera lens poking from behind a parked lorry. They turned around instantly and made for Paul's car to escape. As they pulled away from the kerb, they saw two men on a motorbike following them. After a 15 minute chase, Catherine told Paul to drop her off. "It's me they're after;" she told him, and she leaped out. The bikers pulled up next to Catherine. One shouted: "We've caught you at it." These are the paparazzi who made Diana's life a misery.

Back in Donegal, Paul told Annie about the incident and then she and Catherine spoke on the phone. Annie says: "She was very worried but I told her it was probably nothing." Her confidence was understandable. Neither Paul nor Catherine had spoken to a reporter. How could a couple of pictures be a problem? Catherine, more experienced in tabloid wiles, was far from convinced. With reason.

The first oddity was a late-night phone call to the house rented by the McGanns in Ramelton and answered by a friend of theirs, coincidentally named Kath. A man's voice asked: "Is Catherine there?" When she replied, "yes ," he rang off.

Two days later a friend from London called Annie to say: "You're not going to believe this but...' It transpired that the People had filled pages one, two and three with "the story". It claimed that Paul had left Annie for Catherine and that they were planning to set up home together.

The evidence was a grainy picture of the pair kissing in Paul's car (that fleeting luvvie kiss) and another picture of them in the street, with Paul's consoling arm around Catherine's shoulder. In the background just happened to be a house-for-sale notice. It showed, said the paper, the couple "house-hunting in London's West End".

Paul later said: "I laughed for about five minutes, but once the smile was wiped off my face, I felt very nervous." He had every right to. As Annie says: "It was the beginning of two weeks of hell which has had repercussions on our well-being ever since."

After phoning their families to assure them everything was okay, they started to receive worrying feedback. One of Paul's aunts in Liverpool was attending mass when someone in the pew behind tapped her on the shoulder and said: "No smoke without fire, eh Mary?"

That hit home. Annie and Paul grew increasingly upset. "I felt as if my marriage vows had been violated," says Annie. "But I didn't cry until I saw they'd used a picture of us coming out of church on our wedding day three years before. Even that was taken without our consent."

Soon the phone rang. A local paper reporter asked if the McGanns were living there. They had decided they didn't want to talk to anyone, believing that they couldn't trust what papers would print. So Annie moved with her sons to another town, Rathmullen. It was more difficult for Paul to hide. He was filming on the Ramelton quayside and it didn't take long for photographers and reporters to turn up.

But with four McGann brothers (looking somewhat alike), a sympathetic crew and supportive townspeople, Paul managed to elude the initial trawl by the local press and the stringers sent from Northern Ireland. Then the heavy mob from the nationals arrived.

Two News of the World men staked out the petrol station. Film set workers discovered that their radios and mobile phones were being scanned. A freelance photographer from Belfast took up residence in the Bridge Bar, favourite watering hole for the film team. Photographers climbed trees on the river bank opposite the main film location.

A Daily Mail reporter phoned Paul's agent in London and pleaded with her to persuade the McGanns to talk to her so that she could flee "this horrid male scum" and return home because her sister was having a baby.

It just so happens that my wife and I live in Ramelton for half the year, and we were away during that period. But I soon heard about the press hunt for 'Paul and Catherine'. To confuse reporters, the barman at the Salmon Inn pub even sent them on a wild goose chase to our empty house. They ignored everyone who told them Ms Zeta Jones wasn't around.

One group of reporters hung around the crossroads in the centre of town, noting registration numbers and then following any car likely to be connected to the production in the hope of finding Paul. Inexplicably, scores of pictures were taken of children. Annie says: "We couldn't understand that until neighbours of the cottage we'd left later told us men had called at their houses with pictures of children asking if any of them were Paul McGann's kids."

The McGanns' landlady, a school teacher in nearby Letterkenny, called to say reporters had been asking at local schools if the McGann children were on the register. Annie says: "I felt trapped, and I was frightened that my children would become scared by seeing how upset I was."

Instead of playing outside or enjoying Donegal's beautiful beaches, the boys were confined to the house. But the pack soon tracked them down to their new hideaway and Annie found a good use for newspapers. She taped them over every window and while reporters were knocking on the door she contacted the film unit's security man.

He blocked off the road and the family were smuggled out to another house until later that evening. By now, Paul's agent was suggesting that the couple fly to London and have dinner in a well-known restaurant with Catherine and her partner, looking like the friends they are. Annie refused. "I will not play ball with any of them," she said.

That night a local farmer, Joe Crawford, told them a photographer was training his camera on the cottage from across a field and that two Sun people had called at his house. Crawford said he told them: "Why don't you leave them alone?"

Knowing that was unlikely, the McGanns did another moonlight flit, to a house in the centre of Ramelton where Annie could turn the tables by watching the journalists from behind net curtains while her children played safely in a walled garden.

Meanwhile, the McGanns' Bristol home was also a target for the local news agency and various papers.

A note pushed through the door by the News of the World offered Annie money "to tell your side of the story." Their cleaner arrived and was offered cash if he would let photographers in to "borrow" pictures from the mantelpiece.

Reporters approached the vicar who married the McGanns at Cotham parish church, the Reverend Neville Boundy, demanding to see the wedding register.

In Donegal, the pressure to track down the McGanns or find Catherine intensified. The film unit's security man told Annie that a female journalist had even slept with him in the vain hope of persuading him to lead her to the family. That woman's article was a notorious fabrication, claiming that Paul was in a monastery and that Catherine, then filming in Cornwall, was gazing tearfully towards Ireland (a geographical impossibility), because Paul hadn't sent her a birthday card.

After a week, the journalists and their bosses in London got bored with their lack of success and pulled out, but they didn't disappear. A couple of weeks later they started arriving on the McGanns' doorstep in Bristol. They were ignored. A local agency man called persistently, trying to ingratiate himself with Paul by mentioning their joint Scouse background. He tried various tricks. If the couple agreed to have their picture taken in the park, he would head off the News of the World "who are on their way". When that failed he sneered: "We'll get you one day when you're out Christmas shopping."

A freelance photographer, who had been refused permission to take pictures of the children on school grounds, attended the school fete and snapped a shot of Paul with his sons. The Liverpudlian agency reporter, who joined the News of the World two years ago, has called at regular intervals ever since and always been rebuffed. Paul has consistently refused in the last three years to be interviewed by any papers involved in the Donegal drama. It hasn't stopped the lie being repeated about his relationship with Catherine. All denials have been ignored. On February 20 this year, a Daily Mirror article stated: "Catherine has had a chequered love life which included flings with actor Paul McGann and. . "

In July 1996, a Daily Mail piece asserted that "Catherine had been linked with. . . Paul McGann. . . while they were making Catherine The Great, before returning to his wife and children." In the Daily Mirror in May 1996, another piece said Catherine was spotted kissing Paul in a car.  "Paul left his wife Annie and two sons, and he and Catherine were rumoured to be house-hunting in West London. But the curse struck again and he went back to his wife, vowing to save the marriage."

Yet in the Mirror in September 1995, Catherine was asked about her "affair" with Paul and was quoted as saying "forcibly" that "it's absolute rubbish. I have suffered a lot of intrusions and I resent many of the pictures and words that have resulted."

Then comes a telling phrase. "But if my objections are listed too often, it looks as though I'm complaining and no one wants that."

It couldn't be put better. To complain that something is utterly false is to be tagged a whinger. People like Catherine, Paul and Annie are expected to accept the situation. Celebrities, and those related to them, are considered by tabloids to have no rights. Those who live by publicity (even if they don't seek it) must die by publicity. It goes with the territory

Tough, but that's just how it is.

I know some of the reporters who figure in this story They aren't especially bad. Even though the people of Ramelton protected the McGanns, they liked most of the journalists too. The sad truth is that the news agenda of tabloids has become warped. Where was the public interest in the story? Why spend vast resources on such a trivial matter? Anyway, as papers should have quickly realised, they had got the wrong end of the stick. The People story was a gross fiction.

A PCC spokesman argues that the moral of Annie's tale is that people should complain to them as quickly as possible if such intrusions occur.

Mike Jempson, a director of PressWise, counters that it demonstrates the lack of public confidence in the current system of self regulation.

He says: "If people don't complain then what's been printed is regarded as true and remains in cuttings files for re-use by other papers. But many people are traumatised by the experience of press intrusion and harassment. They don't want to put their trust in a body set up and funded by their persecutors.

"Some have to reveal intimate personal details in order to disprove false stories, and the PCC cannot guarantee that such information will not find its way into the public domain."

<NOTE>At Annie and Paul McGann's request, we have not published pictures of them or Catherine Zeta Jones, nor the related newspaper cuttings</NOTE>

Thanks to Alex and Mary Ellen for the text of this article.