I watched despairingly as my husband lost the career he loved
But together we found a new purpose, broke a World Record, and raised nearly a million pounds for charity
Instead of a great experience for us both, we were crushed by cruel and untrue reports in the Mail on Sunday, and hatred on social media
Our marriage came under strain, my mental health suffered and I had a miscarriage
Today we are fully vindicated, and I want to tell my story
By Alana Stott
For 16 years my husband Dean served with distinction in the Army, the last five in the elite Special Boat Service. He did tours in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Africa. Then one evening in 2010, in the course of a parachute training exercise, his leg got caught in the rigging line as he jumped. The line ripped his leg horribly. The pain was so excruciating that as he descended he was vomiting and in and out of consciousness, and he was lucky to survive the landing. The injuries ended the career he loved.
In the civilian world, Dean struggled to find a purpose. One of the things that had attracted me to him was his incredibly kind heart – he was always looking to help others and in particular his fellow soldiers – but now he was the one suffering and adrift. He needed a challenge.
Cycling helped with his injury and as a soldier, he had always been super-fit, so we had the idea that he should take on a cycling challenge, and not just any cycling challenge but the Pan American Highway – 14,000 miles from Argentina to Alaska. It was wildly ambitious but we talked to friends who knew Dean’s character, and they encouraged us.
One of those friends was Prince Harry. Harry and Dean met on an Army training course 14 years ago and have remained good friends ever since. Harry was just then setting up the mental health campaign Heads Together and he asked if Dean would consider using the cycling challenge to support the new campaign. Dean was delighted to agree.
I had just had our second child and I was thrilled to see Dean focused and happy again as we set about planning the adventure. It was daunting creating social media accounts and launching the fundraising campaign, but after we issued a promotional video with Prince Harry we were inundated with offers of support.
The challenge went brilliantly in almost every way. Dean completed his amazing feat in May 2018, breaking two world records and becoming the first man in history to cycle the Pan American Highway in under 100 days. By then we had already raised more than £500,000 for Heads Together and were well on our way to the million.
A very skinny and happy Dean returned home in May 2018, in time for us to attend the wedding of Harry and Meghan. Then, on the morning of the wedding, I received a text message telling me Dean had been unfaithful. I didn’t know the number and when I called back the line was dead.
It wasn’t the first incident of this kind, though it was the worst up to that time. I had dreaded telling Dean that while he had been cycling a hate campaign had been waged against us. This was another part of it.
The support team for the challenge had been assembled quickly and when things got underway there were some sharp differences of approach and opinion. Dean and I took the view that it was our idea and our challenge, so some people were shown the door. I hoped that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t.
Anonymous accounts on social media began attacking us, making false accusations. Family, friends, and colleagues received poison-pen letters saying amazingly cruel things. Supporters and potential donors were warned off. Everything was done to disrupt the challenge.
So when I got that text message on the royal wedding day, I immediately knew what was behind it. But I thought that, with the challenge done and Dean home, the worst was over. How wrong I was.
The attacks continued and that November things suddenly escalated when a reporter from the Mail on Sunday rang to ask for comments on claims that Dean had cheated on the bike ride, breaking the rules set by Guinness World of Records. I felt sick, though I knew it wasn’t true: the Guinness people had monitored Dean’s entire journey and all the data were recorded and approved as required.
The reporter followed up with an email alleging that Dean had broken Guinness rules by using two different bikes. I knew the rules: parts such as wheels could be replaced fairly freely, but the bike frame could only be changed if it was damaged and the replacement was identical. Dean had traveled with a replacement frame of the permitted kind, but as it happened he never needed to use it.
I sent the reporter the guidelines and the formal confirmation from Guinness World of Records that Dean’s entire ride was within their rules. The Mail on Sunday published its story anyway: ‘Prince Harry’s Special Forces friend “cheated” on world record’.
Even though we had supplied proof that this was false, they ran with it. It was true that there had been disputes in the team, but instead of focusing on Dean’s huge achievement and all the money raised for charity, the paper presented the whole story as if there was only one side to it and we were entirely in the wrong, burying our response in two short paragraphs at the very end.
Looking back, I can see what happened. The Mail on Sunday hates Harry and Meghan and it saw the campaign against us as a way of getting at the royal couple. They didn’t care that money for charity was at stake, or that our wellbeing was at stake. They didn’t care that we had provided proof we had done nothing wrong. The paper just attacked.
The impact was immediate. Every way we turned we were required to justify ourselves and explain that the Mail on Sunday was wrong. Even family members began doubting us. The hate campaign on social media intensified and the journalist who wrote the article joined in.
Our sponsors stepped back. Previously keen to support Dean on his next charity challenge, they said they didn’t want to make themselves a target for press attacks.
Dean was devastated. My daughter was picked on at school, with people calling her daddy a cheat. My mental health deteriorated. And it was at this time that we lost what would have been our third child.
We were still working hard to reach our objective of a million pounds from the bike ride but that was getting harder and harder and when we hit £900,000 we decided to stop, to protect our family.
The first £500,000 had been donated to Heads Together very publicly, announced in an article in Hello! magazine. Given the campaign of lies and hate against us, however, we chose to transfer the remaining amount without any fanfare.
This only stoked the fires. The haters on social media began to suggest we had kept the money and they targeted the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), demanding we be investigated.
So it was that in June 2019 we received an email from OSCR saying that due to the high level of interest and a number of complaints from unnamed sources, they were opening an inquiry.
Another attack by the Mail on Sunday
The Mail on Sunday now struck again, with suspicious speed. The very next day, even before the OSCR inquiry had been publicly announced, we received an email from the same journalist saying he was running an article about misappropriation of funds and that we were under investigation by the regulator.
We explained it was an inquiry and not a conviction and said we were more than happy for OSCR to review our accounts because we could prove we had done nothing wrong, but of course it didn’t make any difference. The Mail on Sunday published its story: ‘Special Forces friend of Prince Harry probed over claims of financial irregularity after world record-breaking ride that raised £500,000 for charity’.
Again Harry in the headline. Our lives were collateral damage in this paper’s campaign against the prince and his wife. And this time it was even worse for us because the paper was insinuating we had stolen money from a charity.
(Incidentally, this was the same reporter whose name later appeared above a ‘baseless, false and defamatory article about Harry for which the Mail on Sunday had to apologise and pay damages.)
As before, we knew that the truth was on our side. Our charity accounts had been thoroughly audited more than once, so we could show we hadn’t stolen any money, misused expenses, or pocketed the £400,000. As for the cheating allegations, which were raked up again, we had the Guinness people do a second check of the records which confirmed we acted within guidelines.
But our voice was no match for a national tabloid and the Mail on Sunday’s claims about us not only remained readily available to anyone who googled our names but they also continued to be repeated widely on social media.
The pressure was horrendous and again my mental health suffered. An eating disorder from the past resurfaced, I couldn’t sleep and I was now being treated for depression. Worse still, Dean and I were arguing on a regular basis. We were both in so much pain and we didn’t know how to resolve it.
Everything depended on the OSCR. Only when they cleared us of the allegations, as we were sure they must, would we be able to clear the air. This was brought home to us when Dean’s book was released and media people told us they would not promote it while the inquiry was ongoing. But when would that happen?
We waited 18 months. The OSCR inquiry was finally completed last December. Not one allegation of financial misconduct was upheld and we were actually praised for raising so much money as a new charity. The only qualification in the verdict was that we were given new management guidelines to help us in the future.
This was vindication in the face of all the online smears and Mail on Sunday attacks. They were proved wrong.
Did the paper report this? Of course not.
It has been an appalling experience and I would not wish it on anyone. All along I have listened to people I thought wiser and more experienced who said it was better not to fight back, that if we did it would only make things worse.
I don’t think that way now. I have changed. I now understand that I was intimidated while the public was misled.
I have seen what others have been through – for example, Meghan Markle, and Caroline Flack – and it is vile and cruel.
It has nothing whatever to do with that ‘freedom of the press’ we keep hearing about.
They lie, they distort, they bully and they exploit social media to do their dirtiest work.
The only answer, I now believe, is to fight back, to show people what these papers do – and what they are prepared to do to anyone, no matter how innocent. We must all speak up. Only that way can we put an end to this abuse of power.