Shropshire Star

My encounter with the News of the World

Shropshire public relations consultant JOOLS PAYNE saw the workings of the News Of The World first hand last year when her family was touched by tragedy


Shropshire public relations consultant JOOLS PAYNE saw the workings of the News Of The World first hand last year when her family was touched by tragedy

News of the World political editor, David Wooding, claims the paper's current newsteam came in "to clean the place up". He defended the soon-to-be defunct tabloid at the heart of the "hackgate" scandal by declaring that current colleagues were "carrying the can for a previous regime" – insisting there had been wholesale changes to the NotW newsroom staff from five or six years ago.

David Wooding's defence of his paper and current "decent, hard-working, distinguished journalists" is symptomatic of the institutionalised delusion that has, and continues to afflict NotW and News International personnel.

My own first-hand experience of some of these "decent, hard-working people" is very different to the quaintly, saintly picture of colleagues painted by the deluded Wooding. Let me explain.

Fifteen months ago my son's girlfriend, Frankie McFall, was murdered by her father, along with her mother, Susan. It was a shocking event that rocked Oswestry and left my only just 17-year-old son reeling in horror, dismay and bewilderment.

Theirs was a very innocent, burgeoning teenage romance; nothing serious but Frankie's last upbeat message on Facebook, posted just hours before her death at the hands of her deranged father, was one expressing her excitement at attending the school Valentine ball with my son the following evening.

Frankie hadn't placed any privacy settings on her Facebook page and my son was named in full.

Frankie's final poignant Facebook message featured heavily in all the media reports. It somehow encapsulated the beautiful 18-year-old's vivacity and brought into sharp and painful focus the fragility of a young life so cruelly and inexplicably (at the time) snatched away on the cusp of a joyous occasion and bright future.

By mid-morning, within 90 minutes of our being made aware of Frankie's brutal murder, a "freelance news agency" photographer from way out of our area was hammering on our front door seeking to photograph Max. We politely declined. Another arrived shortly after. Again we declined.

It became quickly apparent that the story was attracting significant press attention – not just the local and regional press but hitting the national media's buzzers hard too.

I'm a PR consultant. My antenna told me this was going to be huge.

By midday I had Max in my office and together we prepared a very brief statement from him paying tribute to his bright and beautiful friend. At the end of that statement I made it perfectly clear in the "notes to editors" that no further statement would be issued, and that as Max was a minor, no attempt to contact him directly should be made by members of the media.


I prepped him with a one-liner referring all callers to me and I issued the statement for national distribution through a well known Midlands-based news agency.

The rest of that terrible Friday went in a blur. My first priority was to comfort and protect my son as the tragedy unfolded throughout the day. The traumatic circumstances of Frankie's death piled upon Max's existing grief at the sudden loss of another much loved 16-year-old girlfriend just six months earlier on the eve of their holiday together. It was hard for me to fathom how this young man, my boy, would cope with two exceptional, emotionally distressing and traumatic events within such a short timeframe.

At 7.45am on Saturday I was awoken by my mobile ringing. This is how the conversation went:

Me: "Hello"

Caller: "Oh, hello Mrs Payne, my name is 'X'. I'm a PR consultant. I'm calling regarding the terrible news yesterday. I have a client who would like to help your son Max."

Me: "Oh really? Well I'm also a PR consultant. May I ask who your client is?

Caller: "It's the News of the World."

When I had finished laughing at this cynical attempt at reaching my son I was informed by the caller that she would like to talk to Max to write what she described as "a tribute feature to Frankie," adding, "obviously we are willing to pay Max and I'm sure that a young man like him would appreciate having a decent amount of money. What 17-year-old lad wouldn't?" . . . or very similar words to that effect.

I politely thanked her for her interest and informed her in no uncertain terms that it was "absolutely out of the question" that Max would speak to her or consider accepting any payment nor would he be adding anything further to the statement issued the previous day.

Throughout the Saturday we were continually pursued by requests from a number of national newspaper journalists and photographers. I was driven to eventually locking a particularly persistent Daily Mail reporter and photographer out of my office in order to shake off their attentions.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon after repeated calls from different journalists at the News of the World, and at least two further calls from the original "PR consultant" I conceded to issuing a recent family photograph of Max to a news agency with the caveat that any further inquiries would prompt a complaint to the PCC.

Unlike Frankie, Max had enabled the privacy settings on his Facebook page but the following five days saw him receive a daily torrent of "friend" requests.

I'm in no doubt that these were from News of the World and other tabloid journalists. The clue being that each new "friend" request showed they had no friends in common. They too, were ignored.

It grated with me that they were still trying to wheedle their way in to my son's life and trauma at an extraordinarily difficult time for him.

These exchanges plagued me. How had the press got my mobile number? How had they found Max's address so quickly? Why had that woman purported to be a PR consultant?

What perturbed me most keenly was the thought of how individuals who suddenly find themselves thrust into a crisis situation in full glare of a rabid media, and who are doubtless far less media savvy than I am, might cope with such relentless harassment and subterfuge from tabloid journalists intent on intruding on private grief to satisfy their news editors.

In light of recent revelations regarding the utterly reprehensible behaviour of News of the World journalists commissioning phone hacking by private investigators such as Glenn Mulcair, I can't help but wonder whether our phones were also hacked into at that time, and also those of Frankie and Sue McFall's family.

Frankie and Sue McFall's murder, and Hugh McFall's subsequent immediate suicide, provoked utter mystification as to why a lovely, seemingly happy family unit, could meet with such a fate.

The media's insatiable quest for answers in the days following saw many journalists intrude into the lives of people to whom they were most close – family members, neighbours, workmates, school friends and teachers.

Frankie's headmaster told me he had NotW (and doubtless other newspaper) hacks skulking in bushes in the school grounds and brazenly marching straight into his office demanding comments and answers with impunity.

So when you hear David Wooding bleating plaintively on TV and radio about how the NotW had cleaned up its act and that current colleagues are carrying the can for a previous morally bankrupt regime, take not one jot of notice.

Reprehensible behaviour such as hacking into abducted teenager Milly Dowling's mobile phone, the families of 7/7 terrorist murder victims, and, it is now alleged, also those of dead soldiers is driven and supported by organisational culture.

And it is an organisation's leadership that sets and defines its culture. This is particularly true of newsrooms. The culture at the News of the World and further up the organisational structure at News International was one of "results at all costs, whatever it takes" – journalistically, financially, ethically and morally.

I would remind David Wooding that the ethically questionable subterfuge, and harassment my own family endured at the hands of NotW journalists – or their appointed agents – was a mere 15 months ago . . . under the watch of an editor he calls "decent".

It is inconceivable to me that Rebekah Brooks and frankly, James Murdoch can remain in position. Blinkered delusion and the seismic cultural shift required in the News International organisation cannot be cloaked under a simple re-brand or restructure – a commercially driven sleight of hand that is so very typically Murdoch senior.

Leopard and spots.

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