Articles written for the website of Time Magazine but NOT published!


The Art of Lying
by Martin Lewis
(Written July 30, 2001)

This is the original full-length version of this story - completed on Monday July 30th 2001. After consultations with their lawyers - it was turned down by Time.com and I subsequently arranged for an adapted, much-shorter version to be published by www.salon.com on Thursday August 2nd 2001. Shortly after the story was published - the editor I named as the mastermind of the fabricated story about George Harrison - suddenly 'resigned'. This fact was subsequently incorporated in the Salon.com version of my story - but this version is as it was on Monday July 30th 2001 - prior to the outcome which the story apparently prompted.

THE ART OF LYING
An expose of the "George Is Dying" tabloid story

Last week was a very rough time for fans of George Harrison and the Beatles. It was especially rough for George Harrison and his friend of 39 years, Sir George Martin. A British tabloid published a story quoting the former Beatles producer saying that Harrison was very close to death. "He knows that he is going to die soon" were the words Sir George used. He even uttered the phrase twice in the newspaper story. A fairly unequivocal statement.

In today's cyber-news age - a phrase such as "he knows that he is going to die soon" travels very fast. The story was in the first edition of the Sunday version of Britain's Daily Mail newspaper - which titles itself "The Mail on Sunday." The story was immediately copied by another British tabloid the Sunday Mirror - and before you could say "George is dying" - it was picked up throughout the world by wire services, websites, radio and TV news bulletins and, inevitably, other newspapers. Most of the media repeated the story without equivocation or question. The sourcing seemed so irrefutable. Direct quotes from a longtime, respected friend of the ex-Beatle.

It wasn't until the Monday afternoon that an angry George Harrison was able to issue a statement vehemently denying the story. And that Sir George Martin's representative also condemned the story.

There used to be an old saying that a lie can be halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on. In today's environment of 24-hour TV news channels and instant online updates - that lie can have encircled the globe many times before truth has donned its proverbial "Old Brown Shoes" (to paraphrase one of Harrison's Beatle song lyrics.) And if the truth is less salacious than the lie - the retraction or denial invariably gets a lesser placement.

The good news is that George Harrison is NOT dying soon. The "he knows that he is going to die soon" quote attributed to Sir George Martin was a total fabrication by a tabloid editor trying to sell a juicy story. The principal cancer we should be focusing on is the cancer of the British tabloid mentality. A venal, cut-throat attitude to life and a cold-blooded disregard for people's feelings. If we think that the American tabloids are bad - they are 'soft on celebrities' compared to their British counterparts. It's like the difference between the Sopranos and the Tele-Tubbies. British tabloids go for the kill. Literally.

So how did this calumny spring up and devastate what had been a pleasant weekend? The answers shed a disturbing light on the nature of journalism at the dawn of the new century. It's a complex story in which deceit and avarice are compounded by callousness and negligence. The sum total of those qualities is misery.

I suspect that seasoned journalists may yawn and shrug their shoulders at these revelations. For what I have uncovered is almost certainly not unusual. Rather it is emblematic of the ethic-lite manner in which everyday journalism is practiced. Certainly in the tabloid media.

When the slipshod mistakes of the L.A.P.D. in the O.J. Simpson case came to light in the harsh glare of the criminal trial - many were appalled that such negligence could have occurred. But it transpired that the mistakes visible in the spotlight were typical happenstance - and would never have been exposed but for the microscopic intensity of that particular case.

It is quite probable that the journalistic manipulations that I reveal in this article occur every day. But if they are anything like the Harrison story - then unravelling them is almost impossible to do. It has taken a full week of obsessively persistent queries to uncover the fraud at the heart of this story. And that is not a practical amount of time to spend in examining the manipulations of the tabloid media. It would be naive in the extreme to imagine that journalistic practices will change one iota because of what I expose.

But if members of the public - less cynical than the weary members of the tabloid press - become aware through this examination of just one false story how wary they should be when presented with a report that APPEARS to be the truth - until corroborated in a professional and plausible fashion - then perhaps some of the offensive stories pumped out by the tabloids will have less resonance with the public in the future.

First of all - some background on the newspaper that spread such a dishonest story.

The story appeared in one of England's nine national Sunday newspapers. The Mail on Sunday - like its sister paper The Daily Mail - occupies the middlebrow, middle-ground in the British press. In American terms one would have to imagine a newspaper pitched in tone and style somewhere between The New York Times and The New York Post. Politically it has always hewed to a far-right political agenda; from its mid-1930's sympathetic portrayal of Adolf Hitler to its mid-1980's fawning over Margaret Thatcher. Culturally the paper has certainly slipped into more of a tabloid vein from its comparatively respected glory days of the 1950's and 1960's. In this downward spiral it has reflected the dumbing-down of Britain that took place in the 80's and 90's.

Ironically, the Daily Mail has its place in Beatle folklore and song history. The line about "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" in John Lennon's "A Day In The Life" was inspired by a story in the Daily Mail - regular reading in the Lennon household in 1967.

And in 1966 the subject of one of Paul McCartney's songs had a son "working for the Daily Mail - it's a steady job but he wants to be a Paperback Writer."

To fully understand the context of the news story in question - it is perhaps useful to explain the Mail's deep concern for Harrison's health.

Since George Harrison first revealed that he had successfully treated throat cancer in 1997, the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister paper have been in the forefront of the tabloid pack chasing the story to see if new ill-health would arise. Death sells newspapers. And stories of imminent death are a close second. In this respect the British tabloids have been keeping a death-watch on the ex-Beatle. Making Harrison literally a Death Watch Beatle.

The savage murder attempt on Harrison in late December 1999 by a deranged individual (inexplicably described by many tabloid writers as a fan - though there was absolutely no evidence of this) only heightened the shark-like appetite for stories about Harrison's imminent demise.

Tabloid spirits may have risen in May of this year when Harrison revealed that he had been treated for lung cancer at America's famed Mayo Clinic - though the fact that the operation was a success would have thwarted plans for death coverage.

Early this July rumors started to circulate in Europe that Harrison had a brain tumor and was undergoing treatment in an exclusive Swiss Clinic.

Harrison is notoriously press-shy and reclusive. Given the intense exposure of the Beatles years - and the spotlight each of the former Beatles have endured for the past 30 years - such an attitude is understandable. He has not released a new solo album since 1987's "Cloud Nine" - and he chooses not to publicize his private life. He has no official publicist or manager. When he has had statements to make pertaining to his music - such as this year's reissue of his landmark 1970 album "All Things Must Pass" - he has employed the services of Geoff Baker - who fulfills the publicist function for Paul McCartney - and on most Beatles projects from their Apple company.

Harrison was distressed by the myriad press reports relating to his treatment in Switzerland and on Tuesday July 11th sanctioned the release of the following statement through his lawyers:

"I am feeling fine and I am really sorry for the unnecessary worry which has been caused by the reports appearing in today's press. Please do not worry."

This immediately followed an official statement from Dr. Franco Cavalli - the top cancer specialist at the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland in Bellinzona. This was the only statement he gave about George Harrison - who as a patient was entitled to utter privacy. There was certainly no obligation for Dr. Cavalli to go beyond this statement - nor permission from Harrison.

The statement was read aloud to the media on Monday July 9th 2001 by Hospital Director, Luca Borner and distributed in print form.

The exact wording as reported by AP, Reuters, other press agencies - and reprinted in hundreds of newspapers and websites worldwide on Tuesday July 10th 2001 was:

"Mr. Harrison was referred to the hospital to undergo a course of radiotherapy. He successfully completed this course more than a month ago and we foresee no need for further treatment here."

This wording was reproduced in all the major British newspapers on Tuesday July 10th - with one surprising exception.

Britain's Daily Mail did NOT carry this positive quote in its story on the topic. Nor did they even refer to the existence of such positive words from the doctor. In its place they carried the following very negative quote - purportedly from Dr. Cavalli: "He has not recovered, but he is not a patient any more."

Curiously not a single other media outlet in the world has ever reprinted this quote. Nor has Dr. Cavalli ever uttered a single word remotely like it to anyone else. The Swiss Clinic states that the positive quote of July 10th was his sole comment.

Now we come to the story which rocked the world.

On Sunday July 22nd - The Mail on Sunday published this news story. Under a banner headline "George Harrison is close to death says '5th Beatle' Martin" - writer Katie Nicholl wrote the following:

Former Beatle George Harrison has admitted that he expects to die soon from cancer.

The 58-year-old has been treated for a brain tumour at a clinic in Switzerland, having already undergone an operation for lung cancer earlier this year.

Harrison made the emotional confession that he does not have long to live to close friend and former Beatles producer Sir George Martin.

Sir George told The Mail on Sunday: "He is taking it easy and hoping that the thing will go away. He has an indomitable spirit but he knows that he is going to die soon and he is accepting that."

The story then went on to describe how Harrison had received treatment at the Swiss hospital. It claimed that Harrison had "put on a brave face" in his July statement - "but Sir George, dubbed the Fifth Beatle, revealed Harrison is now facing up to the prospect of death."

The paper then quoted Martin as saying "George is very philosophical. He does realise that everybody has got to die sometime. He has been near death many times and he's been rescued many times as well. But he knows that he is going to die soon and he's accepting it perfectly happily."

The story arrived with a deafening thud. It was so unequivocal.

"George Harrison is close to death says '5th Beatle' Martin"

"George Harrison has admitted that he expects to die soon"

And buttressing up the story was the fact that venerable Sir George Martin - the Beatles producer who had known Harrison since the day of the Beatles' first audition in June 1962 ("tell me if you don't like anything" invited Martin - "well for a start I don't like your tie" quipped 19 year-old George) - this close confidante had apparently personally informed the Mail's writer. "Sir George told The Mail on Sunday."

And in referring to Harrison's closeness to death he used the phrase "he knows that he is going to die soon" not once but twice.

Well this had to be an open and shut case. Surely a long-established newspaper such as The Mail on Sunday would never print erroneous information on such a grave matter as a prominent person's life and death without first being scrupulously certain of the facts? So the news was duly flashed around the world.

People assumed either that despite Harrison's cheery statement of July 11th - he had decided to reveal that it was not true - and had for some reason used Sir George to be the bearer of this news. Or that Sir George had decided of his own volition to give this most private of health bulletins to a newspaper.

And yet neither assumption sounded plausible. If Harrison wanted to reveal this - surely he would have done it himself - or had the news conveyed by a closer confidante - such as Ringo Starr.

And no one could believe that gentlemanly Sir George would divulge such a sensitive health issue without sanction.

The simple truth was that the story was a compounded melange of lies, exaggeration, distortion and gross negligence.

To unravel it one has to go back a few days.

On Wednesday July 18th, Sir George Martin sat down with a journalist from WENN - World Entertainment News Network - a respected London news agency specializing in entertainment news and features. EMI Records in the UK had just issued a 6-CD box set retrospective of Sir George's 50-year career as a record producer. As is common in such cases - a publicist had set up a series of interviews with such writers to assist in providing media coverage of the release. The writer was a young man named Christian Koch. Sir George was comfortable being interviewed by him. Koch had recently given good coverage about a charitable project close to Sir George's heart - an auction of his musical score for the song "Yesterday" to raise funds for victims of the Montserrat volcano. So Sir George felt fairly relaxed in his presence. The interview had been requested on behalf of ABC Radio in America - one of WENN's regular clients. Sitting in on the interview was Adam Sharp - Sir George's respected manager who has overseen business for the producer for the past few years.

The interview took a total of approximately 40 minutes and consisted of 27 separate questions. The full transcript of the interview reveals an easy-going conversation which naturally included much discussion about his life with the Beatles - but also touched on topics ranging from Oasis, Jimmy Webb and Princess Diana to a proposed stage musical of "Yellow Submarine." It even included a reflection of what music he'd prefer to have played at his own - hopefully far-off - funeral. (The answer was classical composer Vaughn Williams.)

Number 24 of the 27 questions was the inevitable query about George Harrison's health. Inevitable because any time someone from the Beatles' circle is interviewed on any topic - the most recently publicized aspect of one of the three is a natural query. This week it will be Sir Paul McCartney's engagement. That week it was George's health.

Sir George responded in honest yet diplomatically abstract terms. He referred to the facts that had already been exposed by Harrison himself - and the difficulties arising. And he stated what any halfway literate Beatles fan has known for some 35 years - namely that Harrison has a philosophical view of the world and mortality - enhanced by his study of Eastern spirituality. Harrison knows he is going to pass on at some point - and he is accepting of that fact.

He could have been quoting from Harrison's own 1970 song "The Art Of Dying" from the legendary "All Things Must Pass" album. In that song Harrison (then only 27 and in the prime of health) offered his sanguine view of mortality:

"There'll come a time when all of us must leave here... Nothing in this life that I've been trying Can equal or surpass the Art Of Dying."

These are the words of someone who had been studying a religion that teaches humans to surrender their fear of death and live in the here and now.

Neither Sir George, nor his manager Adam Sharp saw anything unusual in the question - and certainly not in the answer he gave. Paul McCartney had given a similarly elliptical answer - though less full of detail - when he had been interviewed on CNN's "Larry King Live" program a few weeks earlier.

But Sir George had no means of knowing that events were about to take hold of his innocent words and turn them into the device by which his dear friend's mortality would be used as an excuse to sell more newspapers.

Christian Koch returned to the offices of WENN and the tape of his interview was transcribed in preparation for editing.

It was then that George Harrison's health took a decided turn for the worse.

The agency's News Editor - James Desborough - took a look at the interview. Without referring to his bosses or any other senior executives at the agency - he apparently decided that the benign response offered by Sir George Martin to the question about George Harrison's health might be the basis for a racy news story.

If only Sir George had placed some sort of contemporary relevance on all this eastern guff about Harrison accepting what the fates might decree. In referring to Harrison's serene philosophical beliefs - known to fans for the past 35 years - Sir George was far too bland. What it needed was a confession from Harrison that he was about to die!

Unfortunately for someone seeking such a sensational story - this just did not exist. If you wanted to stretch the English language to breaking point you could clutch at the straw that Sir George talked about Harrison having been rescued from tough situations before - referring to his throat cancer and the murder attack in his home in which he'd been saved by his wife.

"I guess he's hoping that he's going to be rescued again. And I think he will. But he knows perfectly well there's a chance he may not be. And he's accepting it quite... quite happily."

This was not the stuff of headlines. It needed something much racier. Much more dramatic. And it needed the words "die" and "soon."

It turned out to be very easy. It was just a question of retyping the interview and putting those words into Sir George's mouth. Even though he had never uttered them.

Now he had a sentence that had Sir George Martin say of George Harrison: "He knows that he is going to die soon."

This was more like it! With that key phrase in place - Desborough set about constructing a headline and some suitably melodramatic supporting copy.

"Ex-BEATLES guitarist GEORGE HARRISON is perilously near to death - according to his close friend and former producer SIR GEORGE MARTIN."

The phrase "perilously near to death" had a certain ring to it. His story continued to lay it on thick: "apparently George isn't in good shape." Desborough's story then alluded to Harrison's recent statement (getting the month wrong) "In June Harrison urged fans not to worry after his latest operation - but he could be downplaying the seriousness of the condition according to Martin."

Sir George (as Sir George is entitled to be known - rather than just as "Martin") had made no such assertion. But it fitted the story Desborough was shaping. The rest of his story was filled out with suitably adjusted quotes from Sir George and repetition of speculation from unnamed sources about Harrison's health.

Out of the 27 answers to the 27 questions asked by Christian Koch for his feature interview - Desborough had selected just one. Out of the exactly 2,169 words spoken by Sir George Martin in his 40 minute interview - Desborough had extracted merely 105. And he had fabricated a few extra words for good measure. The all-important phrase "he knows that he is going to die soon."

Now it was time to go to market. Within hours Desborough had found his mark. The Mail on Sunday was eager for the story. At last - solid confirmation of its suspicion that Harrison was seriously ill. And apparently in directly quoted words from a friend. Bingo! Stage One of the Art Of Lying was complete.

The Mail on Sunday got the story on the Friday. At that point it consisted of just 365 slick words. The WENN story ended with the internal code (CK/WN/ES) CK being the initials of the original interviewer Christian Koch. James Desborough apparently did not add his initials to his handiwork.

When I spoke to James Desborough about the story last week - all he had to say was that "George Martin is on tape. We got him." It sounded remarkably like a "gotcha!" USA Today reporter Ann Oldenburg contacted WENN the day after the Mail story broke and reported in Tuesday's USA Today "a spokesman for chief executive Jonathan Ashby said that the Martin interview, which took place for 40 minutes on Wednesday, was on tape and "100% nailed."" WENN has thus far been unable to find any individual in its office who has confessed to having given that elegant quote.

The first edition of The Mail on Sunday goes to press at about 8pm on the Saturday evening - so there was no time to waste.

The story was allocated to writer Katie Nicholl.

She worked on the story on Saturday - and lost no time in building upon Desborough's story. The "George Harrison is close to death" headline was followed up with a plethora of detail. Some of it factual, much of it conjecture, spin and innuendo. Scattered through the piece like occasional support beams to a ramshackle shed were quotations from James Desborough's patchwork story.

Nicholl must have been impressed with the quotation in the supplied story that used the key (and fabricated) phrase "he knows that he is going to die soon" because she re-engineered Sir George's already much-cantilevered words to have the knight of the realm say these never-uttered words TWICE in her article - even though the story she had received had only used the fabrication once.

"He has an indomitable spirit but he knows that he is going to die soon."

Followed by:

"He has been near death many times and he's been rescued many times as well. But he knows that he is going to die soon and he's accepting it perfectly happily."

In a story that was to be eventually read, heard or seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world - the words "he knows that he is going to die soon" - a nine-word phrase that Sir George had NEVER uttered - was being placed in his mouth a SECOND time - by someone he'd never met, spoken to or even heard of.

Not that the newspapers readers would know that.

Because in what Katie Nicholl claimed to me is "standard practice" in journalism - the paper then expressly stated that the interview had been given to the paper directly.

The paragraph with the first of the erroneous "he knows that he is going to die soon" comments starts with the words "Sir George told The Mail on Sunday."

When I asked why this was done when it was clearly wording that could mislead readers into having greater faith in the credibility of the story, Miss Nicholl told me: "if we have an exclusive interview, we reserve the right to say that the person spoke to us."

Oh...

The article was larded with emotionally-loaded phrases that were not based on any quote - just the writer's interpretation. Phrases such as "Harrison has admitted"; "Harrison made the emotional confession that he does not have long to live"; "the star put on a brave face" ; "Harrison is now facing up to the prospect of death."

And then there were the anonymous "sources" claiming that he "lost half a lung in the operation." Unnamed "doctors at the clinic admitted." And the stock favorite "according to experts the long-term prognosis for Harrison is not good" - these experts being unnamed people who had not seen Harrison - or his medical records.

To cap it all - there was a quote from Harrison's cancer doctor in Switzerland. But it was not the only known quote about Harrison - which had been carried by every major news outlet in the world on Tuesday July 10th and which stated unequivocally that Harrison had "successfully completed this course more than a month ago and we foresee no need for further treatment here."

It was the purported quote from the same doctor - apparently given exclusively to the Daily Mail - which in direct contradiction of his official statement gave a diagnosis that just happened to fit the negative story presented by the Daily Mail.

And what of the opportunity for a reaction from George Harrison's representatives prior to printing this story? After all the paper was announcing his imminent death to the world. A senior representative of the paper told me that he could not be quoted so I cannot use the exact words. But if the reader were to surmise that the essence of the paper's position is that it is not always possible to contact a celebrity on a weekend - and that that was tough luck on the celebrity - then it is possible that you have guessed precisely what I was told. Had I been able to report it. Since I can't - you must imagine for yourself.

George Harrison - as a noted benign recluse of some 30 years standing who is without a regular publicist - would certainly not have been an easy person to reach late on a Saturday afternoon in the summertime. But perhaps that was the convenient point...

On such a sensitive issue involving someone's life - perhaps it might have been prudent - not to say the essence of decency - to wait till the Monday and make the enquiry. The story - complete with reaction and any denial could then have been placed in Tuesday's Daily Mail without the fabric of the universe rupturing over the 48-hour delay. Perhaps the editors feared that the fabric of the universe WOULD rupture if they waited. In any event - the decision to publish was made - without reaching any representative of George Harrison to seek his reaction. Nor did they seek a representative of Sir George Martin just to double-check that they were not misquoting him or putting words into his mouth (such as the second "he knows that he is going to die soon" words which they HAD put into his mouth.)

Within hours the damage was done. Beatles fans worldwide were stunned and distraught over the news. Beatle websites and internet newsgroups overflowed with postings. And American TV stations flashed the news in bulletins throughout the day.

In England Sir George Martin awoke to discover the story and was mortified. According to his manager Adam Sharp - Sir George immediately telephoned George Harrison who was incredibly upset.

At this point Sir George was baffled by the story. The paper claimed that he had "told The Mail on Sunday" and yet he knew that he had had absolutely no contact with this newspaper. (He was unaware of the paper's extremely liberal interpretation of the word "told.") So he told George Harrison that he had not spoken with the paper. And that he had certainly not told anyone that Harrison "knows that he is going to die soon." He hadn't been told that by Harrison, hadn't independently surmised it and he certainly hadn't told anyone such a thing.

Underneath his justifiable anger, Harrison was probably more sanguine than Sir George. After all he had lived intimately through the madness of John Lennon's 1966 philosophical reflection on mid-60's hero worship being turned by myopic, bigoted Americans into a "we're bigger than Jesus" assertion; and the inanity of the American deejays who in the fall of 1969 propagated the insane notion that "Paul is dead" and had been replaced by a plastic-surgeoned actor.

But now a newspaper in his own beloved England was twisting the words of a beloved friend to say that "George is (nearly) Dead."

With neither Harrison nor Sir George being well-equipped in the political game of War Room-style rapid response - the story festered unrebutted all through Sunday. Sharp was away for the weekend in the North of England. By the time he got on the telephone on Monday morning - the damage was severe.

Sharp tried hard to reach media and returned every call he could. He responded to ABC's "Good Morning America" and on Monday morning that program became the first in America to offer any rebuttal to the constant repetition of the original story.

Throughout the day Sharp reached other media - and at first unaware of the source of the manipulated quotes - continued to say that there was no basis at all for the story.

Finally he surmised the source for the quotes. He immediately called Christian Koch at WENN. "I spoke to him and he broke down in tears" said Sharp. "He told me that his boss had taken the tapes off him and manipulated the story without his consent." That boss was WENN News Editor James Desborough.

Meanwhile Harrison's principal lawyer in London - Nick Valner of the legal firm Eversheds - finally issued a statement to Britain's premier wire service - the Press Association - late on Monday afternoon. The statement was scathing in its intensity - and revealed the depth of the anguish experienced by Harrison and his family.

The statement said that George Harrison and his wife Olivia were "disappointed and disgusted" by reports that referred to his "imminent demise".

"The reports were unsubstantiated, untrue, insensitive and uncalled for, especially as Mr. Harrison is active and feeling very well in spite of the health challenges he has had this year.

"George Martin was quoted and has emphatically denied speaking to any newspaper."

At this point Sharp had not had time to inform Sir George of the betrayal that had taken place - and thus that his fabricated words had arrived at the newspaper via a rogue editor's manipulation of an interview given for American radio. But the Harrison denial still reflected the basic truth. Sir George had not spoken to any newspaper.

Inevitably the rebuttal stories carried by the media on Tuesday were a fraction of the size of the original story.

A Beatle who emphatically claims he is NOT dying is somehow deemed far less newsworthy than one which the media outlet can claim IS dying.

The Mail on Sunday has continued to stand by its story.

When I spoke with WENN at the end of the week, the agency was swift to cooperate - and immediately released the key evidence which enabled me to uncover the calumny undertaken by the rogue editor. They gave me free access to the entire 40 minute interview and to the distorted story extracted from it - which had been sold to The Mail on Sunday. Most importantly they played me the unedited tape of the full exchange between Sir George Martin and their reporter. I made a copy of it and painstakingly transcribed it word for word. I noticed the relaxed, conversational style of Sir George's response. This was not a medical bulletin or indiscreet revelation. Just a carefully-worded, reply to a query which emphasised Harrison's general philosophy.

At this stage WENN had not noticed the insertion of the nine-word phrase "he knows that he is going to die soon" into the story - but were already intensely displeased with the unauthorized actions of their news editor James Desborough in manipulating a feature piece into an unpleasant tabloid story which ended up causing so much distress.

After my brief exchange with Desborough in mid-week - in which the editor curtly told me that the story was accurate - he disappeared on a previously-booked vacation to the island of Ibiza off the Spanish coast - and his employers have not yet been able to challenge him about his misdeeds.

I telephoned Katie Nicholl at The Mail on Sunday. She reiterated that the paper stood by its story. She was absolutely confident of it. "We've got it on tape" she explained. I asked her about the use of the negative quote from Dr. Cavalli that no other newspaper in the world had ever used. She didn't claim to have secured that herself. She assumed that since it had been in the Daily Mail previously that "it must be correct." I asked her why no one else had got that quote. "Probably because we got it exclusively" she said - though she made clear that she had no personal knowledge of this. When I asked what efforts she had made to corroborate the story with representatives of Harrison or Sir George she suddenly clammed up. "I don't want to be quoted in a newspaper piece so this conversation is all off the record" she suddenly said.

Well I have been practicing journalism since 1971, know my Watergate-era Woodward & Bernstein, and certainly know the journalistic code of ethics. I had clearly identified myself by name and media affiliation at the beginning of our conversation - so I told her that if she wished to go off-the-record from now - that I would naturally accept that - but that it was not possible to go off-the-record retrospectively. Our conversation to that point was clearly on the record. In point of fact she had said nothing that was that incriminating - though perhaps she sensed that her answers were not flattering to her newspaper's image. She informed me that she felt she must pass the matter to her news editor Paul Field - who would phone me back in an hour or two. Just 30 seconds later Field telephoned and identified himself - and then went immediately off-the-record. The fact that he phoned and gave me his name is all that the journalistic code allows me to reveal.

There was still something troubling me.

I had identified that the start of the trouble was the decision by a rogue news editor at WENN to extract one short answer from a 40-minute, 27 question interview; fabricate a devastating nine-word phrase to make the story juicy - and then gussy the piece up to make it seem like a hot breaking news item.

I had further established that the same mentality had been deployed at The Mail on Sunday with what they believed to be accurate quotes. They had lathered up the emotional content with inflammatory language, selective editing, unnamed sources and repetition of their exclusive July 10th "quote" by the cancer doctor (not to mention their avoidance of mentioning his official positive prognosis.) And they had shamelessly made it appear that the incriminating "he knows that he is going to die soon" phrase had been uttered twice by Sir George.

But had The Mail on Sunday simply accepted the words provided to them by WENN - or had they made any attempt to verify the Sir George Martin quotes provided to them by the agency? After all - this was the life and death of someone they were writing about.

So I called back the paper and asked for its most senior executive. I was put through to Mr. Russell Forgham - the Managing Editor of the entire paper. He was polite but wary - having been notified of my two earlier phone conversations with his staff.

He was careful to ensure that I knew the correct way to spell the exact name of the newspaper. "It's very important that you get it right" he informed me. "It's 'The' - with a capital T. 'Mail' - with a capital M. Small o - 'on'. Big S for Sunday"

That established - I asked him outright about the key matter - and he was unequivocal.

"The quotes from Sir George were on tape. We have heard the tapes and we stand by our story."

"We have heard the tapes" was what Russell ("two esses and two elles") Forgham ("That's F for Freddie, O-R-G-H-A-M") informed me.

But obviously not very well. For if they had listened to the tapes with - for example - the same attention to detail with which he was ensuring that I knew how to correctly spell the name of his newspaper - they would surely have noticed that a key phrase presented twice in the story they had prepared - was totally lacking from the tape they heard. "He knows that he is going to die soon." Soon. That's S as in Sloppy. O as in Outrageous. O as in Offensive. And N as in Negligent.

And so the story lies...

Today we have reason to believe and hope that George Harrison is continuing to recover from his medical travails of the past few months. And we hope that his health was not set back by the angst caused by the odorous and fallacious story which circulated last week.

Sir George Martin is now a very wary man. A series of telephone interviews that had been lined up with American media to promote his CD box-set have been canceled by Adam Sharp - who is determined not to let Sir George be abused like this again.

James Desborough is still sprawling on a beach in Ibiza - unaware that his callow and malicious deception has been exposed.

And millions of people who get their news from papers, websites, TV and radio - including countless fans of the Beatles and George Harrison - now have extra reason to be very sore and circumspect about how news stories are created.

And the last words belong quite rightly to George Harrison. 31 years ago - in the very song in which he outlined his sage understanding of the mortality of man - he also wrote some lines succinctly addressing the nature of honesty. Words that today seem especially apt.

"When things that seemed so very plain
Become an awful pain
Searching for the truth amongst the lying
And answered when you've learned the Art Of Dying"


Return to Columns Index

Martin Lewis Home Page



Copyright © 2001, Martin Lewis