When politicians in different corners of the world wonder out loud whether Rupert Murdoch is becoming too powerful, they are thinking normally on a grand scale, about his potential to manipulate governments or to subvert national cultures. However, the same question can arise on a much more human scale, if any ordinary individuals find themselves challenging Rupert’s rule.
Consider the case of Michelle and Lisa Taylor, two teenaged sisters from south London who were briefly the object of a tabloid feeding frenzy in the summer of 1992, when they were convicted of murdering a 21-year-old bank clerk named Alison Shaughnessy, whose husband had once been Michelle Taylor’s boyfriend. It had precisely the combination of body fluids which Rupert’s men so love – blood, tears and semen. They lapped it up.
The quality press never did trust their conviction. The Guardian, the Independent, the Observer and BBC Newsnight all investigated the case and concluded that there was good reason to believe the two sisters were innocent. In June 1993, the Court of Appeal agreed and released the two young women with two stinging rebukes: one for the detectives who had failed to disclose vital evidence; the other for the tabloids who had prejudiced their trial with ‘unremitting, sensational, inaccurate and misleading’ stories. Lord Justice McCowan asked the Attorney General to consider bringing contempt proceedings against the tabloids, including those belonging to Mr Murdoch. Ten months later, the Conservative Attorney General quietly decided to do no such thing.
And there matters might have rested. Michelle and Lisa Taylor might have emerged from prison – terrified, confused, bitterly angry but nonetheless ready to rebuild their lives – if it had it not been for two apparently unrelated events which have now conspired together to teach the two sisters a lesson about what can happen if you stand up and risk Rupert’s revenge.
The first of these events was very simple. When they discovered that the Attorney General had let the tabloids off the hook, the Taylors announced that they were going to the High Court for a judicial review. Geoffrey Robertson QC agreed to act for them in a case which would see half a dozen Fleet Street editors in the dock if it succeeded. In other words, they stood up and defied Rupert Murdoch and the tabloids. It was a decision which was braver than they realised.
The second event has a stranger history and it involves a very strange character, whose name is Bernard O’Mahoney. Alternatively, his name is also Patrick Mahoney or Patrick Lawson or Bernard King, depending on the circumstances. Mr O’Mahoney is a nightclub bouncer from Basildon in Essex, a burly figure with a crew cut and a criminal record for violence, and he has come to specialise in a new form of roguery which is itself a testament to the power of Murdoch’s press. He is a scoop monger. That is to say, he befriends people who are in the news – particularly high-profile prisoners – extracts their secrets, usually in the form of letters, and then sells their contents to the tabloids. He is not the only opportunist to spot the niche in the market created by Fleet Street’s decline into chequebook journalism. There are half a dozen scoop mongers at work, but he is the best. Friendship is his business.
It was Mr O’Mahoney who posed as the lovely “Belinda Cannon” in 1991 and sent a torrent of letters, sealed with “big juicy hugs”, to the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who replied in kind from his secure ward in Broadmoor Hospital. Mr O’Mahoney repaid his trust by giving his bundle of correspondence to a woman friend and sending her in to the Sunday People with a wig and a request for £4,000 in cash. Unfortunately for Mr O’Mahoney, the woman dropped her guard, took off her wig and admitted all to the People’s reporter. Peter Sutcliffe stopped writing.
It was Mr O’Mahoney who befriended Richard Blenkey while he was awaiting trial for the murder of a seven-year-old boy in 1992. In one of his letters, Blenkey effectively confessed to the crime. Before you could say “chequebook”, the letter was with the News of the World, and Mr Blenkey was pleading guilty in court. He, too, ended the correspondence. At the time, police in Basildon were quoted in the national press explaining that Mr O’Mahoney had been writing to prisoners in order to sell their stories since 1989 when he had opened a line to Ronnie Kray. But the exposure did nothing to stop him. And by that time, he already had his hands on a new and juicy tale. Only this time, he went a little further than usual.
O’Mahoney had spotted the Taylor sisters. Within days of their trial opening at the Old Bailey, on July 6 1992, Michelle Taylor received her first letter from “Bernie” – full of sympathy, full of certainty that they could never have committed this crime, full of friendship. Michelle replied. Bernie kept writing and sent a photograph. Michelle replied again and recognised his face in the public gallery at the Old Bailey.
Then, as the trial finished and the two girls were convicted and jailed for life, an odd thing happened. The News of the World published a scoop by their crime reporter, Gary Jones. “Alison’s killer hated being love rat’s ‘tart’” was the headline. It quoted from ‘a letter to a pal’ , in which Michelle described how she had come to hate her former boyfriend. Michelle Taylor was distraught. She told O’Mahoney he was a rat. He swore he was innocent.
He wrote and admitted that the News of the World’s letter ‘said a lot of similar thing that you wrote to me’ but he claimed to have called the paper on the day the story was published (even though their office was closed) and to have discovered that there was a press agency hawking a whole collection of Michelle’s letters. They couldn’t be the letters she had written to him, he said. He still had them, he said. “I am above such mercenary behaviour,” he explained. Two days later, he wrote again and admitted that it was his letter in the News of the World, but he insisted that it must have been copied by someone else without his knowledge. He signed off with ‘love and deepest affection’.
Michelle was confused. She felt betrayed but she also felt guilty about blaming him when she wasn’t really sure of the truth – after all, she and Lisa were being wrongly blamed in just the same way. She knew she had written a similar letter to another friend, she had no idea of O’Mahoney’s activities as a scoop monger, she liked his attention, she was glad he was so sure of their innocence and since he volunteered to sign an undertaking that he would never betray their confidence and since he also wrote in capital letters “I WOULD NEVER HARM YOU, MICHELLE”, she gave him the benefit of her doubt. He signed the undertaking not to betray their confidence, and she carried on writing.
Soon Mr O’Mahoney was a close friend, a regular visitor to the sisters’ prison and to the home of their parents, Ann and Derek, who were running a campaign to prove that their daughters were innocent. Mr O’Mahoney busied himself on their behalf, tracking down witnesses and checking new leads. That autumn, he started talking about writing a book. He said he wouldn’t talk about money. They could sort that out later. The important thing now was to get them out of prison. Michelle agreed and told him that she and Lisa didn’t want any money at all from the book. They just wanted people to know they were innocent and how corrupt the legal system was.
On June 11 1993, the Taylor sisters were released by the Court of Appeal, and another odd thing happened. The News of the World published another scoop, written again by their crime reporter, Gary Jones. The puzzling thing about this particular story was that it managed to describe the celebrations inside the Taylors’ home, including the fact that Lisa Taylor was with the son of a woman they had met in prison. But Gary Jones had never been inside their home. He had turned up on their doorstep and slipped a signed note through the letter box, offering them “a substantial sum of money for your exclusive story”. “I am outside your door at the moment,” he had added. They had left him there. So how had he known what was happening inside? No-one suspected the burly bouncer who was sitting alongside Michelle. They guessed Gary Jones had just made it up, just like he had made up the sentence in the story in which he said the News of the World had refused to offer them money for their story. They knew that was a lie, and they kept his note to prove it.
At this stage, the Taylor sisters were still the victims of nothing more than the traditional treatment handed out by Murdoch’s boys. The heavy shelling started later. By that time, Michelle had fallen in love with the man who seemed so keen to champion her cause, and then fallen out again when she discovered that he was still involved with his former girlfriend. She threw him out. There was a flurry of anxiety when Michelle believed that he had taken some of her legal papers with him; a brief tug of war about who owned the book they had started writing; and then a dark year of bitter recrimination during which O’Mahoney made threatening phone calls and delivered sneering notes, while Lisa Taylor’s husband made threatening calls in reply, someone slashed the tyres on the Taylors’ cars, and both sides complained to the police.
In this new mood of mutual hatred, O’Mahoney gave a long interview to officers who were investigating the case on behalf of the Police Complaints Authority. He told them that he had had enough of telling lies for the Taylor sisters. The truth, he claimed, was that he had manufactured false evidence to help the sisters win their appeal. Since he was claiming to have distorted evidence which had played no part in the Court of Appeal’s decision, his allegation missed its target. But he carried on firing.
On May 28 of this year, there was another story in the News of the World, written again by Gary Jones, describing the girls as ‘twisted sisters’, claiming that Michelle had seduced O’Mahoney away from his girlfriend, drawing a parallel with the ‘love triangle’ which was supposed to have led to the murder of Alison Shaughnessy – and quoting explicitly from Michelle’s letters to O’Mahoney. The Taylor sisters were distraught, particularly at the discreet nudge suggesting that there probably was something in the case against them after all. But at least they finally knew without doubt who was betraying them.
They still had the undertaking which O’Mahoney had signed, promising not to betray their confidence. Fearing still more stories based on the scoop monger’s material, their lawyer, Mark Stephens, wrote to the News of the World, threatening an injunction unless they undertook to stop publishing confidential information. The News of the World refused. So the Taylors went to court. That was when the scoop monger produced his big story. He swore an affidavit in which he claimed that Michelle Taylor had broken down and confessed to him that, in truth, she was guilty of the murder of Alison Shaughnessy.
In the affidavit, O’Mahoney claimed that in October 1993, shortly before breaking up with Michelle, he had found a letter from the Taylors’ original solicitor, Michael Holmes, in which Holmes supposedly recorded that Michelle had admitted her role in the murder. O’Mahoney went on to claim that he had confronted Michelle with this damning letter and that she had given a tearful but nonetheless detailed account of how she had murdered Alison Shaughnessy. It was this, he said, which had led to the break-up of their relationship. “I felt I had been completely conned,” he added, with no sign of irony.
At one level, the Taylors had no trouble dealing with the claim. The idea that their original solicitor had written this letter was denied by the solicitor, who swore an emphatic affidavit describing O’Mahoney’s account as “spiteful, damaging and untrue”. O’ Mahoney replied by suggesting that it must have been someone else in the solicitor’s office who had written the letter. The claim was contradicted, too, by the Court of Appeal’s decision and also by common sense. If Michelle Taylor truly had confessed to the scoop monger 19 months ago, why had he never put a reporter on to finding this lawyer’s letter? And, more than that, why had he never mentioned it to the officers from the Police Complaints Authority, with whom he had done his best to damage the sisters’ standing on the basis that he was fed up with telling lies for them? He explained in his affidavit that he had said nothing because he couldn’t see the point and, anyway, he didn’t want to upset the Shaughnessy family.
In one sense, O’Mahoney was firing a blank shell. This was a libel so severe that he would never be able to sell it to any newspaper, no matter who owned it. However, there was one way in which newspapers would be able to print the confession – if it came out in the course of a court hearing. That way, the press could report the affidavit under the cloak of court privilege. And by this time, the Taylors had declared war on the tabloids with their action against the Attorney General. It was due to be heard within weeks. Now the tabloids returned the fire. The News of the World and their scoop monger decided to go to court.
The Taylor sisters were trapped. If they backed out of their law suit, O’Mahoney would be free to sell all their letters and anything else he had picked up about ‘the twisted sisters. He could manufacture as many stories as he liked, knowing that the sisters would never sue him for fear of him bringing his affidavit to court. But if they pressed ahead with their law suit, the News of the World’s lawyers – who also happened to be O’Mahoney’s lawyers – would claim that the sisters were trying to gag them only in order to conceal this evidence of their guilt. They would present the affidavit in court, the tabloids would line up to report every word and the two sisters would be tried all over again. They would win in court. They had no doubt about it. But by that time, the smear would have been spread across the country by their tabloid opponents.
The battle went into a temporary stand-off, with both sides agreeing not to discuss the case with anyone until it came to a full hearing. In the meantime, in July of this year, the Taylors lost their case against the Attorney General. Briefly, they contemplated surrender against the News of the World, trying to strike some kind of deal with them which might leave their reputation intact. But in the exchange of paperwork to prepare the legal case, they discovered that O’Mahoney had known Gary Jones for years and had been in the habit of speaking to him three or four times a week, all through the time that he was befriending them. They found, too, that he was hoping to publish a whole book full of letters from prisoners he had befriended. It made them feel like meat on a hook. It also made them too angry to surrender.
If the lesson they were supposed to learn was that they had better not tangle with the tabloids, they rejected it. They have asked their lawyers to go to the House of Lords to challenge once more the Attorney General’s failure to punish the press for prejudicing their case; today they plan to hold a press conference to denounce the attempt at trial by tabloid; and then they will wait to see whether they must suffer another round of Rupert’s revenge.