Leveson inquiry: The Herald and Sunday Mail’s “malicious lies”

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by a Newsnet reporter

The parents of murdered Glasgow schoolgirl Diane Watson appeared before the Leveson inquiry into press ethics to describe the appalling treatment their dead daughter’s reputation suffered in articles published in the Herald newspaper, the Sunday Mail and Marie Claire magazine.  Margaret and Jim Watson told the inquiry how misreporting of their daughter’s murder had distressed their only other child so much that he committed suicide.

Diane died after being stabbed following an argument with a fellow pupil at Whitehill Secondary school in Glasgow’s East End in 1991.  16 year old Barbara Glover was later convicted of the killing and of an unprovoked attack on Diane the day before she was killed.  

The articles in the Glasgow Herald (as it then was), the Sunday Mail and Marie Claire magazine were published in 1992 and were identified by Margaret Watson as “misreporting” and “malicious lies”.  Mrs Watson described her distress at how the articles portrayed her dead daughter being a bully and implied that she was in some way responsible for her own murder.  The articles appeared sympathetic to the murderer, implying that she was the real victim in the case.

Following Diane’s death, the Glasgow Herald published a series of articles which played down the extent of Diane’s injuries and suggested that she had provoked Barbara Glover.  The articles detailed how Diane had supposedly “looked down upon” Barbara Glover, and claimed that she had subjected the girl to a campaign of bullying.

The articles by the journalist Jack McLean claimed that the Watsons came “from an upper working class background and that Diane had looked down on Barbara Glover with disdain”.  There were a number of other inaccuracies in Mr McLean’s account.  

Mrs Watson added that Mr McLean campaigned for young offenders and didn’t like the idea of Barbara Glover getting a life sentence, however she noted:  “He [Mr McLean] picked an individual case that he knew nothing about to spearhead his campaign.”

However a second article on the same topic and making the same inaccurate allegations later appeared in the newspaper.  The Watson family sought to speak to Mr McLean at the Glasgow Herald offices.

Mrs Watson said:  “I was absolutely fuming, enough was enough.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  Was told by the reception that I’d no right to come up and speak to any journalist, if I had a complaint I had to put it in writing.”

The family were also distressed by an article about the case which appeared in Marie Claire magazine.  The article made inaccurate allegations about Diane’s behaviour in the days and hours leading up to her murder.  The Watsons complained to the Press Complaints Commission about the Marie Claire article saying it was “inaccurate to the point of distortion”.

The family demanded an apology from the magazine, but the apology was three lines hidden away on the letters’ page.  The family refused to accept it.  The then editor of Marie Claire, Glenda Bailey, refused a number of requests from the family to meet to discuss their concerns.

The family believe that the misreporting caused their only other child so much distress and pain that he committed suicide.  Diane’s younger brother Alan took his own life in the months following Diane’s murder.  When his body was discovered he was clutching cuttings of the articles in his hand.

A third article by Jack McLean about the case was published in the Glasgow Herald on the day of Alan’s funeral.  Mrs Watson said she would have thought the paper would have left them alone on such a painful and emotional day, adding:  “I thought at least they would leave us alone for Alan’s funeral.  They took away his respect, they took away his dignity.  On the very day that we were laying our son to rest.  If any journalist here thinks that good … then God forgive you because I won’t.”

Mrs Watson told the inquiry:  “If journalists want to campaign about anything they must ensure they have all the facts before them before they delve into people’s private lives and cause further tragedies.”  Mrs Watson said that she had “no doubt” that the articles contributed directly to her son committing suicide.

Despite numerous inaccuracies in the published stories, the Watsons were unable to obtain a retraction or apology from the Herald.  The Watson family were only eventually able to secure a meeting with Mr McLean and the editor of the Herald after standing outside the newspaper’s Glasgow offices for six weeks with a banner.  Neither Mr McLean nor the newspaper have offered the Watsons any apology.

The Watsons also contacted the PCC about an article published in the Sunday Mail entitled “Child crime victims turn into criminals”.   They believed the article was “grossly misleading” about their daughter.  Mrs Watson said that the article highlighted how “when children are young, are bullied or abused, they may go on to commit violent crime”.  However the piece followed up by, again, getting the facts wrong about the circumstances leading up to her daughter’s murder.

Although the PCC agreed with the Watsons that the article was misleading, they took no action against the Sunday Mail.

The Watsons have campaigned for a change in the law to prevent inaccurate reporting of the deceased.  As the law stands the dead cannot be defamed.  Mrs Watson said: “Just because someone is dead they can write what they want.  And they certainly did it.”

The Watsons said that the Scottish government had responded to their concerns, and had published a consultation paper on a possible change of the law, Death of a Good Name: Defamation and the Deceased.  The Watsons urged the UK government to take similar action in England and Wales.

As he finished giving his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Watson appealed for a new system of press regulation saying:  

“Given the inquiry into press standards and ethics … we strongly feel that the Press Complaints Commission is paid for by the newspapers that published false misleading articles about our dear murdered daughter Diane.  Sadly the malicious falsehoods were too much for our son Alan, who died with these articles in his hand.  We feel that the PCC should be replaced by a completely independent body or tribunal who should go over the complaints in person.”