Nobody wants to fight a national newspaper for two years to prove libel. But that is exactly what happened after Juliet Shaw, then a freelance PR consultant, was approached to appear in a Daily Mail article on women moving from city life to the country.
Looking for a fresh start, Juliet had moved back to Walney Island in Cumbria from Manchester, with her two daughters.
In September 2003, an article – headlined ‘Sex and the Country – What happened when four singletons, fed up with shallow urban lives, upped sticks in a quest for rural romance?’ – was printed in the Femail section of the paper.
Juliet was horrified. The piece had been sold to her as good exposure for her business at a time when she needed clients in her new location, and was not meant to be about her personal life – especially not details which, she says, are completely untrue.
She tells Hacked Off: “I just remember sitting in the living room, looking at it and was a bit bemused at first. I was thinking ‘this is ridiculous, I didn’t say any of this’. It slowly started to sink as I reread it.”
Juliet had responded to an online request from a freelance journalist she met briefly when working for the Manchester Evening News, having just moved back to Cumbria with her children. She was told she suited the bill and it would be fantastic for her business. After a short interview over the phone, Juliet became suspicious when a follow-up questions over email turned to her private life.
She says: “The journalist started asking questions by email that I thought were inappropriate. I wasn’t naïve enough to think it would be free advertising, it was editorial, but I had no reason to think it was anything other than a serious piece.
“She asked me how many men I’d met since I’d been there and I said, ‘none really’. I didn’t really go out, I’m single and I’ve got two children, I was new to the area. She kept saying ‘you must go somewhere’.
“She emailed me again and said her editor had come back to her and wanted more information. I mentioned I’d been to a club with a friend and met someone who happened to be a doctor, and had a drunken kiss with him. One of her questions was ‘so, tell me more about this doctor you met’. She was trying to get information out of me that didn’t exist. I kept replying to say so. That’s when the line of questioning started to get very obvious in its intentions, but I thought as the answers were negative it wouldn’t be used.”
The journalist went on to ask Juliet about her sister’s farm and whether any “fit men” worked there. Juliet said she spoke to the farmhands, but went there to visit her family.
She was then pressured into attending photo shoot in London, a six-hour drive from Cumbria. With no childcare and limited funds, Juliet refused. Clearly under a lot of pressure herself, the journalist had repeatedly called Juliet and left messages begging her to attend the photo shoot, saying her neck would be on the line if she did not attend. Juliet eventually agreed after the paper agreed to pay her expenses and put her up in a hotel for the night.
A few months later, when the article was printed, Juliet describes the moment she saw the finished article.
“I just remember sitting in the living room, looking at it and was a bit bemused at first. I was thinking ‘this I ridiculous, I didn’t say any of this’. It slowly started to sink as I reread it.”
As the headline suggested, along with an opening sentence “Sex And The City is back on TV…”, the article focused on the romantic lives of the interviews, and was a tie-in with the return of a popular programme. Juliet says she would never have agreed to be interviewed if she had realised the true angle.
The article claimed she lived in a large house with a private beach, when in fact she rented a modest property and the island is surrounded by a shoreline open to the public. The doctor with whom she had shared a drunken kiss, mentioned to the journalist after constant questioning, became “a fling with a married man during her final year in Manchester”, when she was still in a relationship with her partner.
The article also said Juliet had been seeing a man who worked on her sister’s farm, and the pair often sat “cuddling on hay bales”. They had seen each other a couple of times, but two years after he had left the farm and divorced his wife.
She says: “To his wife or anyone else who knew us, if they thought I was carrying on with him when he was working at the farm then they knew that was when he was married. That was one of the things I was really worried about at the time.
“When I stopped being bemused by it I just started to feel cold thinking about the effect it could have.
“People in Walney think that I’m bragging about having my own massive house and private beach and going around having affairs with married farmhands. Later that day I went to pick up my daughter from school and popped into the newsagent. I saw a woman buying a copy of the Mail and thought, ‘oh my god, she’s going to read that’.”
After friends started making comments, Juliet says she became withdrawn.
“I still functioned but internally everything was so hard. I was suffering from depression at the time and the thought of introducing myself to someone seemed like an impossible task.
“I just wanted to make a go of it, and saw my youngest daughter starting school as a fresh start. It was an opportunity to start meeting people and start making friends. But because this came out a week after she started, I didn’t know who thought I was a liar. I didn’t speak to anybody or try to make friends. I heard ‘that’s the one’ more than once.”
After contacting the other three women interviewed in the piece, who said they were similarly horrified, Juliet complained to the Daily Mail and pointed out the misleading parts, along with several factual inaccuracies. After saying they would look into it, the paper replied standing by the article.
She says: “I was more shocked by that than the actual article. How can you state categorically that it’s all true? It’s not.”
The others decided not to pursue the complaint, but after seeing a local solicitor and paying a defamation specialist to draft a letter to the paper, Juliet was told she could take the case to court if she paid for a barrister. Instead, she decided to fight the case herself. She also wrote to the Press Complaints Commission for advice.
She says: “I only had twelve months to file a claim so I had to make the decision whether I let the PCC handle it or I do it myself. At that point I had so little faith in the industry because I knew [Mail editor-in-chief] Paul Dacre was chairman of the PCC [Editor's Code Committee] and I knew the Daily Mail were quite happy to insist black was white and not even entertain my grievances.
“I looked into the PCC, looked at the figures, and saw how many cases got adjudicated and thought I stood very little chance. At least I would have control of it if I did it myself.”
The claim was eventually referred to the High Court and heard before Mr Justice Tugendhat in 2005, after the Mail failed to have it thrown out. Luckily, Juliet had retained all of her email conversations with the journalist, despite the paper disputing her version of events. Afterwards Juliet says the opposing barrister, who said she was very impressed with her, asked her what she wanted. The paper’s solicitor later phoned her, warning the trial would be hard.
“I said I was happy to carry on. She asked me to give her an idea of what I wanted so we could settle before going to trial. I said I would have to work out how much I’d spent on fighting it. I never wanted a large sum of money. It was just stage-by-stage. There was no ulterior motive or big plan.
“I was exhausted and I did know how hard a trial would be. At this point I’d had a specialist judge agree with me. I’d had vindication from the highest point that I could have it. Even though I would have loved to take it to the end, that was enough for me.
“With lost earnings and physical costs, it came to about £7,500. They offered £5,000 and I said no, and finally they agreed. They said they would pay the full amount or just the physical costs and print an apology. I didn’t have any faith that they would print it so I took the easy option.”
Juliet has since moved back to Manchester and started a law degree. The majority of the money she received was spent repaying her mother money she had borrowed while fighting the case. She says she laughed when Paul Dacre told the Leveson Inquiry the paper corrected mistakes straight away, but is not bitter about the experience.
“I would do exactly the same thing again but I would do it now with a lot more knowledge and a lot more confidence. But it wasn’t an option not to do anything about it. I’d tell anyone in a similar situation to do something about it and not back down. I think I won.”