Transcripts

24 October 2003: Daily Telegraph

Why I had to force the Daily Mail to admit that it was wrong about me

Dame Diana Rigg describes her legal fight with the tabloid that portrayed her as lonely and embittered. She won almost 40,000 in libel damages.

I HAVE always thought of myself as rather a happy person. Apart from a few knocks along the way I consider myself to have been extremely lucky. Working in a profession I love, equally content when not working, life was jammy until the Daily Mail and its columnist, Jane Kelly, decided to re-write it.

I don't generally give interviews unless I have to promote a play and had sworn years ago, having been bitten once too often, never to be interviewed by a woman again.

Of course not all female journalists are bad but many in our tabloid papers lead the world in exercising malice. But this interview was different, it was for a charity, Children with Aids, and I had been approached by its fund director, Peter Brooke Turner, to raise awareness of its needs.

Since I was not completely up to date with the charity and its doings I asked Peter to accompany me to the interview. In retrospect we were both idiotically naive and quite unaware that the latest sting in journalism, to lure reluctant subjects to the interview table, is to invite them to talk on a favoured charity.

We arrived a little late and Jane Kelly appeared visibly miffed at the sight of Peter by my side. The interview, I remember, proceeded rather jerkily as she kept pulling away from the subject of the charity into more personal matters and I kept pulling her back.

In the end I gave in and responded in general terms to questions on childhood, early theatre, the new house in France, etc. Nothing I hadn't spoken about before, and we seemed to part on cordial terms. Two days later the article appeared and I went into shock. I had been given a persona I didn't recognise, attitudes I don't possess, opinions I don't hold and words I had not spoken. To cap it all Miss Kelly had decided to retire me.

Friends sympathised but cautioned against action. "It's tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping" . . . "Nobody will remember in a few days" . . . "No one who knows you will believe it", they said.

I knew, however, that once in the public domain and unchallenged, the article would be up for grabs for any journalist to recycle and perpetuate at will. I was not prepared to live with that prospect so I wound my way to Harbottle and Lewis, and Tom Amlot, a solicitor. He looked young enough to be my grandson, with spiky hair and a huge gap-toothed grin.

The good news was that I appeared to have a reasonable claim, the bad that it would cost a great deal to pursue it. Tom handed me a list of charges and warned me telephone calls would be timed. I re- named him "Start-the-Clock" Amlot. In the ensuing weeks the Mail's legal team vigorously defended the article, letters flew back and forth and both sides grew richer.

I decided to go to France to check on work in my new house. "Looking for love in France", Jane Kelly had written. Silly woman. Looking for a good carpenter more like.

Two days after returning, my shockometer fizzed up the scale again. Another article in the Mail claimed that I was living "the life of a recluse" in France. It was accompanied by a grim photograph of me clutching a baguette. The caption read, "Shopping for one". Much of the original article was re-printed. I had been followed to a remote village and secretly photographed.

Why print this? Was it there to substantiate the retirement claim? Or possibly to intimidate me, leaving me in no doubt that there wasn't a corner of my life the Mail could not expose? I will never know but people still stop me in the street and ask why I am here and not in France. Irritating.

Meanwhile "Start-the-clock", my QC, Mr Desmond Browne, and his junior, William, had been beavering away on my behalf. We appeared to be going full steam ahead for the High Court - not a prospect I relished and neither, I suspected, did Miss Kelly, though for different reasons.

Her notes on the interview were a vital piece of evidence and my team needed them to check against Peter's and my version of events. The other side endlessly prevaricated and when the notes eventually arrived they were indecipherable - a mish-mash of shorthand and Miss Kelly's own scribblings. Could we have a transcript? Not unless we paid, came the initial reply.

The transcript, when it finally appeared, cheered my team up no end, containing as it did, very little of what was printed in the finished article. Despite this hard evidence the Mail fought on. Several High Court hearings, and more letters were added to the file. Gradually the tactics became clear; the opposition intended to drag the proceedings out as long as possible, incurring hair raising legal bills, in the hope that I would run out of steam or money or both. "Start-the-Clock" kept my spirits up and urged me to hang on in there, but it wasn't easy.

Suddenly, an apology was mooted, then the wording began to be hammered out and an end to the whole tawdry business looked possible.

This week, 13 months on and 80,000 in legal fees - on my side alone - the Mail finally settled. Out of curiosity I weighed my case file. The scale registered three stone.

Am I happy at the outcome? Of course, but the past months have held moments of deep depression. Archie, my ex, must have been hugely embarrassed by the article but never for a moment taxed me for it. My brother and his family had read the bit about "her father was strange" but rallied to my side. It tends to be overlooked that many people are indirectly affected by thoughtless and cruel journalism.

I have followed the recent deliberations of the Press Complaints Commission and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and despaired at their conclusion that existing press regulation is sufficient. Tabloid newspapers are very rich and hold huge funds to fight claims. They will go to any lengths to avoid printing an apology for this makes them look foolish and lose credibility. For justified claims such as mine there should be a fast-track, independent process, without recourse to the law, which has the power to grant an immediate and prominent apology in the offending paper. Only then will the press begin to clean up its act.

What now? Top of my agenda is a celebratory lunch at The Ivy with "Start-the-Clock", Desmond and William, which promises to be fun.

I am paying, natch.


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