Pressed to Death
This is a tale of misdirected persecution; of trial by tabloid; and of the shifty incompetence of the Press Complaints Commission. It concerns the late Scots comic actor Eric Cullen, best known as "Wee Burney" in Rab C Nesbitt.
Eric, an achondroplastic dwarf, kept the height and proportions of a child all his life. Between his size, his very poor sight, his unaggressive temperament and the internal adhesions from which he suffered, he also remained as physically vulnerable as a child.
At thirteen Eric was raped by an uncle, Jack Williams, who convinced him that being a dwarf and "only" adopted, if he told anyone he'd be taken from his adored adoptive family and sent to a children's home. Williams belonged to an organized paedophile ring of the most sadistic and violent kind: Eric later famously said of himself "I know what it is like to scream for mercy - but never to receive any." With his child-like looks he never ceased to be attractive to these men, and continued to be subjected to gang rape, torture and systematic degradation well into his twenties. Strong-willed and resilient, he achieved a degree and a career while being routinely raped.
There was a brief respite in his mid twenties, but once he became a high-earning star his abusers returned to assault him physically and sexually and extract money with threats of revealing his years of sexual humiliation to the press. He wanted to protect his parents from knowing what their son's life had been; and he'd been conditioned to believe that he was disgusting and everyone would recoil from him if they knew. He also knew this gang would torture, even kill him if he defied them. Like a battered wife he hid his bruises, relying on gin and the Samaritans to stay sane.
He also feared - correctly - that the tabloids would tar him with the same brush as his abusers. Already, excessive press pursuit of "Wee Burney's girlfriend", particularly by the Daily Record, had cost him an important relationship. In view of this previous experience he was careful to keep his emotionally-charged reunion with his birth-mother from the media. Her decision to sell the story to the Record caused a bitter quarrel, and they never spoke again.
[Curiously enough she was once reported to have claimed that Eric sold the story - which was certainly not the case. I suppose it's not impossible that the paper bugged them in some way, paid neither, and then left each of them to think that the other had betrayed them...]
In summer 1993 some of Eric's abusers terrorized him into allowing them to cache part of their collection of illegal pornography at his house. This was to bring worse disaster on Eric than anything which had gone before; and it would not have happened had it not been for the tabloid press.
Had the Record not already driven away his girlfriend he would probably have been sharing a house with her by this point; in which case it would have been extremely difficult for his abusers to come round and extort money from him, and impossible for them to dump the tapes etc. at his house. The Record was not to know that its hounding of "Wee Burney's girlfriend" would have such extreme and tragic consequences - but it must certainly have known that it risked ruining a promising romance.
According to Strathclyde police, another adult victim of the same paedophile ring informed them that the gang had cached extreme child-pornography in the houses of various terrorized victims, including himself and Eric. He himself didn't care if the gang punished him because he was dying of Aids anyway. Police collected pornographic videos etc. from Eric's house, quite sympathetically. Eric was asked to keep this secret to avoid alerting his abusers that the police were onto them: but within a few hours the news was leaked to the Scottish media, presumably by someone in Strathclyde Police or the Crown Prosecution Service.
Certain Scottish tabloids promptly vilified Eric as a "child-porn pervert" - particularly the Daily Star of Scotland, which had decided that "Wee Purvey" made a good sound-bite. This media scandal helped lose him his career - a serious blow, since it was the only thing which made him feel good about himself.
The Scottish Sun behaved well, but confused the issue by careless sub-editing. In an interview, Eric mentioned one of his abusers by sub judice name. Instead of "my abuser" or "this man" the Sun's subs changed it to "my gay lover" - giving other tabloids the false impression Eric was homosexual, and openly so. Eric had no prejudice against consenting-adult gays, but he was enthusiastically heterosexual - when he wasn't so overwhelmed by memories of abuse that he lost interest in sex altogether.
It is hard enough for victims of sexual abuse to break the silence and tell even one person. Eric had mentioned having been abused to a few friends as if it was well in the past, but he had never discussed the details with anyone, or told anyone the abuse was ongoing. Now suddenly he went from nobody knowing to the whole of Scotland knowing.
He was so devastated by shock and embarrassment and by the gloating shock-horror headlines (which always seemed to me to be a continuation of sexual abuse by another means) that he suffered a major breakdown. While he was a psychiatric patient he had to endure media-inspired vigilantes howling hatred at the hospital gates - while the tabloids joked about his "Wee Burn-out".
Eric immediately offered to give evidence against his abusers - but his offer was refused. Instead, he himself was charged with possession of pornographic material which the CPS acknowledged had been dumped on him with menaces. Police found two undeveloped photographs, taken years before, showing Eric and two younger boys "mooning". Eric insisted these belonged to and were taken by Francis Currens, one of his abusers, as part of that abuse: but he was charged with exposing himself to minors.
According to the police at least one other victim had been landed with illegal pornography, but only Eric was charged. He seemed to have been singled out for prosecution so the tabloids wouldn't claim he'd been let off because he was famous. Scotland on Sunday reporter Dorothy Grace Elder, a friend and supporter of Eric's, later wrote that "... behind the scenes the establishment admitted they had so little evidence against Eric Cullen it would have been highly unlikley he'd have been prosecuted at all if the case hadn't been made high profile instantly."
Eric agreed to plead guilty to committing these offences under duress, but the case was spun out for two years without coming to court, during which time he suffered a second acute mental breakdown. He required 24-hour surveillance to prevent him killing himself, and for the rest of his life suffered terrifyingly vivid flashbacks and nightmares of abuse and torture, panic attacks and bouts of near-catatonic collapse and of beating his head against the wall until he bled.
While Eric was a psychiatric inpatient Strathclyde Police held an illegal public briefing on his sub judice case, at which the press was fed a luridly inflated, inaccurate version of the charges he faced - some confusing Cullen with his abuser Currens. Journalists were told the connection between Cullen and Currens was that they "met in a Gents' lavatory" - implying that they were partners in perversion, and omitting to mention that Eric was fourteen, and had been taken there in school uniform for Currens to rape.
Scotland on Sunday quoted the Procurator Fiscal [note for non-Scots: this is the state prosecutor, equivalent to American District Attorney] as saying "Don't touch the police stuff - it's rubbish": but most tabloids accepted the most scandalous version without bothering to check it. This was, to be fair, neither surprizing nor entirely their fault: I suppose they weren't to know they were being deliberately misled by the police, and to such an exaggerated extent.
In July 1995 Eric pled guilty to four charges: possession of illegal pornography dumped on him by someone else; having exposed himself in two "more vulgar than sexual" photographs; having taken these photographs; and having shot a "lewd" video-clip at a Boys' Brigade weekend.
The Crown's explanation of the first charge was "The appellant was too frightened to resist Currens' demand that the appellant store part of Currens' library of pornographic material", and the presiding sheriff stated that Eric had been absolutely cleared of any suspicion that he was a child-abuser. The prosecution reported that neither boy in the "mooning" shots had any complaint against Eric, and one couldn't remember the incident (it does not seem ever to have claimed the boys actually said Eric took the photo's).
Since Eric was pleading guilty, his lawyer suggested he had committed these offences as a result of abuse. Shortly afterwards a life-long, "dangerous" sex-offender would be fined £200 by a Scottish court for abducting boys aged four and five and groping their genitals - but Eric was fined £1000 and sentenced to nine months in Barlinnie, apparently to satisfy the tabloids.
The instant the case ceased to be sub judice the Scottish broadsheets carried interviews with Eric, made just before the court-case, in which he had stated:
Whether or not the press believed him this was Eric's version of events, prominently reported (in the broadsheets) and consistently and vehemently repeated. After his death certain tabloids would state that he freely admitted being a "child-porn pervert" warped by abuse - an inflated version of his lawyer's suggestion. The Daily Mail would present him as a revolting paedophile who publicly claimed his own suffering excused his abusing others, and whose supporters agreed with this.
Even assuming Eric was genuinely guilty of all offences to which he pled guilty, these offences were very minor. Yet most tabloids concentrated on him rather than his abusers - apparently unconcerned by an organized group of sadistic rapists being left free to prey on children, provided they could whip up a juicy scandal about someone in "showbiz".
The broadsheets - and the Scottish Sun, which behaved impeccably - variously reported:
Further information reported only after Eric's death, but which could have been known to any paper which bothered to ask, included:
Other significant points which were not reported, but which again were available for the asking, included:
Nevertheless most tabloids took it as read that Eric was a proven pervert slavering over vile "kiddie-porn". Clearly these papers had decided what story they wanted to tell, and then bent the facts into a pretzel to fit. This is a result of the overheated tabloid style. A sober, cautious paper can produce a sober, cautious report that e.g. child-pornography has been removed from X's home, and later report that the circumstances were not as first assumed. A tabloid which has immediately gone overboard on screaming headlines about "Wee Purvey" can't change its tune without major loss of face.
The tabloids go overboard because particular story-lines trigger a knee-jerk churning out of a set script, with archetypal villains or heroes - attaching the names of real people to standard lay figures. Because "Star found with kiddie-porn" does usually mean the star is a secret pervert, it initiates a pre-set response drawn from tabloid iconography.
Something similar was seen with the Charles/Diana story. Because the tabloids had decided that Charles was going to be the betrayer and Diana the wronged, virginal bride the fact that Diana also admitted adultery didn't fit the script, and was ignored. Diana was portrayed as an opponent of blood-sports - which she in fact supported - in contrast to the wicked Royals, because that was what her rôle as popular heroine required. Charles was vilified as "trying to imitate Diana" for the warm, humorous attitude he had always had - the press having forgotten that it used to call him "the clown prince", and recast him as "humourless ogre" for this particular script.
Regarding Eric, the Daily Record printed quotes attributed to an anonymous police source - which conflicted radically with information given by an anonymous police contact to the broadsheets, and ranged from severely slanted to completely fictional. E.g., the Record's contact was quoted as saying police had investigated Eric's claim that he'd been abused and had found no corroboration. According to the Lord Advocate no such investigation had then taken place. It wasn't until two and a half years after Eric first offered to testify, and only as a result of persistent nagging by Eric and his friends, that the Lord Advocate ordered an investigation into Eric's uncle - which found plenty of corroboration from other victims.
The Record's contact with its anonymous policeman was crime reporter Stephen Wilkie. Wilkie was later sacked for "increasingly bizarre behaviour" which culminated in his arrest on a drugs charge, but at the time the Record trusted his opinions.
Scottish lawyers consider the Daily Record the mouthpiece of Strathclyde Police - who seem to suffer from a collective Judge Dredd complex. If they suspect somebody they can't comprehend that they could be mistaken, and if the evidence doesn't fit they tend to change the evidence instead of the suspicion. They have an alarming record on police brutality and miscarriages of justice, and when they hit the headlines it is generally because of some crime they have committed rather than solved. In a fairly typical recent incident, for example, a Strathclyde officer became overexcited whilst making an arrest and punched a bystander in the face, as a result of which she suffered an epileptic fit and had to be rushed to hospital.
For Eric, prison alone was terrible enough: years of being shut into cubicles to be gang-raped had left him nervous of other men and with a panic terror of being locked in. But because of the tabloids other prisoners believed him a child-molester, a "beast". He was placed in danger of the rape and beatings he'd thought he had escaped forever: a contract was taken out on his life, and he had to face crowds of prisoners shouting insults and threats. However, more accurate accounts in the broadsheets and Sun improved matters, and he was released after fifteen days pending an appeal.
The Record reported the threats against Eric's life and then complained that he had been given special privileges because he had spent his imprisonment (and his thirtieth birthday) in a suicide-proof cell, partly to protect him from other prisoners. It also complained that he had been given soft treatment because he had been allowed his own clothes - though it must have been aware, since it was prominently reported elsewhere, that this was because no prison-issue clothes would fit him. Evidently it thought it would have been appropriate for the prison authorities to send him out naked to be beaten to death.
Leading up to his appeal, the relentlessly hostile and inaccurate coverage by e.g. the Record bordered on conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Various tabloids campaigned for him to be sent back to the prison which he was sure he would not survive. Given the state of his heart he was probably right: so if these papers had had their way they would have been sending him to his death.
The day before the appeal the Edinburgh Evening News carried a screaming headline "PUT WEE BURNEY BEHIND BARS", accompanying a report predicting a forceful popular demonstration against Eric's release. In the event this massed expression of the people's will consisted of three curious females who appeared to be on drugs (who were there on behalf of a convicted murderer from Leith - but that's another story).
Despite the worst efforts of the press Eric's sentence was quashed - by a notoriously hard-line judge who described the offences of which he had been convicted as "very much at the lower end of the scale". That didn't end the harassment by the press, however: and the Record reported the judgement in such a way as to make it seem that the judge had stressed how grave Eric's crimes had been - inverting the emphasis of what Lord Ross had actually said.
I once said to Eric that the media obsession with celebrities is ritual cannibalism: a way of "eating" the famous person's virtue - their perceived power and glamour. The tabloids, particularly the Record and Star, continued to pursue Eric almost as relentlessly as the press pursued Diana, but with a much nastier agenda: one journalist (not Wilkie) told him the only picture they wanted was of him in his coffin, and they would get it. At the time this threat was made it was well-known that Eric was acutely suicidal: this deliberate effort to push him over the edge was, in effect, attempted murder.
He was portrayed as "Wee Purvey", a "child-porn pervert" etc. at every opportunity. When Eric tried to state his own case the Star called him a "professional victim" who should just shut up about it. Glasgow's local Evening Times printed wild accusations of financial impropriety supposedly made against Eric by his birth-mother - of course without mentioning that she had only met him once, years before, had had no contact with him since, and could not possibly know how he conducted his bank-account.
No-one, including Eric himself, knew that he was dying of heart-disease - but all the papers knew that he was an acute suicide risk, and must have realized that their behaviour could be the death of him. When Eric actually did take an overdose he was besieged by journalists who surrounded the hospital. Most coverage at that time was quite sympathetic: but the Record, inevitably, still characterized him as "shamed pervert". Typically, it wasn't enough for the Record to say that he had taken sleeping pills: it had to carry a big headline saying that he had "gulped" them, making him sound as unattractive as possible - though having known Eric I have difficulty imagining him doing anything so unrefined!
The Record's "increasingly bizarre" Wilkie pursued Eric and his friends obsessively: indeed Wilkie's behaviour was investigated by the police, though as far as I know nothing came of it. At the time, "stalking" was not an offence.
The Record/Wilkie portrayed Eric as an hypocritical pervert for campaigning against child-abuse, and accused his friends the McFarlans of endangering their children by having him around. Over two years previously, when the story was first leaked to the press, Eric had been working on a promotional video with Bill McFarlan; whom he then barely knew. Owing to the media scandal and Eric's breakdown Bill had cancelled this job. Subsequently he became Eric's close friend and dedicated supporter: but the Record/Wilkie reported Bill's cancellation of this video as a recent event proving that even Eric's close friends were ashamed to work with him.
Gentle, witty and warmly sympatique, Eric had more and more devoted friends than anyone else I've met, and seemed to be on first-name terms with half Lanarkshire. He lived in Hamilton, the industrial town he'd grown up in, in an ordinary (if nicely furnished) house on an ordinary estate, nextdoor to the notorious Hillhouse estate - home of the burnt-out car and the curfew. Almost painfully refined and respectable - typical exclamation "Oh gosh" - he remained a local lad who liked a laugh and a pint. At the height of the scandal neighbours sent their children to clean and shop for him and asked him to baby-sit, to show their absolute trust - again reported in the broadsheet press.
Nevertheless the Record played politics-of-envy, portraying him as a sybarite living a life of unreal luxury in his "posh" home, surrounded by "showbiz chums". E.g., it reported that after Eric's appeal "showbiz pals crowded round him" (to separate him from the ordinary decent man in the street?). Only one of these "pals" actually was connected with "showbiz". I know because I, an NHS computer-programmer, was one of them.
Characteristic of the Record's/Wilkie's style was the prominent coverage of any story, however petty, which could conceivably show Eric in a bad light (did readers really need to know he owed his lawyer money?), whilst ignoring major events which showed him in a good one. It portrayed his supporters as subversive cranks for having criticized the conduct of the police towards him - yet fell mysteriously silent when the Lord Advocate did the same, and ordered Strathclyde Police to begin the investigation into Eric's abusers which the Record's police contact had claimed had already been held. Nor did it report that Eric was suing its police contact for malpractice. It did once briefly mention Eric "claimed" the pornographic tapes etc. weren't his - but never that the Crown agreed.
There seemed to be an element of inter-paper rivalry involved. The Sun was for Eric so the Record had to be against him and perhaps vice versa, and similarly the Express was "pro" so the Mail had to be "con" - irrespective of the actual evidence. A very clear example was provided by the Mail's coverage of the Saudi Nurses story. The Mail vigorously supported their claims of innocence until the Express outbid it to buy their stories, whereupon it as vigorously asserted their guilt. The facts hadn't changed, so it was highly unlikely both opinions were reached by rational deduction: rather, the Mail simply went with whichever version it thought would sell and/or would demarcate its patch from that of its territorial rival.
Eric received widespread support and sympathy from e.g. religious and civil liberties organizations - as reported in the broadsheet press. His determination to testify against his abusers to protect other children, at whatever psychological cost, was praised by the broadsheets and The Big Issue.
The UK Press Gazette named columnist Dorothy Grace Elder Reporter of the Year, "awarded for initiative, determination, and graphic writing of general and news feature reports", specifically "for submissions on the 'Wee Burney' case", describing Eric as "wrongly convicted".
"This story was unfamiliar to many of the judges, but it gripped like a Dick Francis thriller. To espouse a cause with a background of child abuse is neither easy nor popular, but the mild and defenceless Eric Cullen, subjected to controversial police procedures, a savage sentence and a horrific ordeal in the toughest of jails, found a true champion whose coverage throughout, including his ultimately successful appeal, had the authentic bite of first-rate human-interest reporting."
In contrast with the hysterical coverage by most Scottish tabloids, the Scottish Sun, while not particularly taking sides as to Eric's guilt or innocence, took the reasonable line that either way the accusations against him were very minor, and the courage he was showing in attempting to save other children from appalling abuse was very great. Esther Rantzen backed him absolutely, and as part of its quasi-religious Moment of Truth series the BBC produced a showpiece programme highlighting Eric's suffering and his courage (and indicating that his own sexual inclinations were heterosexual). He was offered work, though he was too unwell to take it.
A month after his thirty-first birthday Eric had emergency surgery for a twisted bowel. Afterwards he was in good spirits, surrounded by nurses who cheered his arrival, queued for his autograph and told him it was an honour to welcome him to a different sort of theatre. The BBC asked him back as Wee Burney, though he was too fuzzy with morphine to take it in properly. Two days after the operation, he suffered a fatal heart-attack: a post mortem showed his heart was "80% diseased". Mourners packed a large church and overflowed to line the roads for a hundred yards, as if he were royalty.
After his death, a close friend of Eric's said that it would have been better for Eric if the police had never turned up on his doorstep and he had simply gone on being beaten and abused - because he could cope with being raped far better than he could deal with the intrusive and lying behaviour of the press. I don't actually think this is true - Eric himself said publicly that, whatever else had come of it, the police raid was a good thing in his life because at least it brought an end to the abuse. But the mere fact that a close friend of his could suggest such an exchange shows what overwhelming distress Eric's public pillorying had caused him.
Eric died of heart-disease inherited from his birth-father, who had himself died of a heart-attack in his forties. The papers knew the medical cause of his death, but nevertheless some of the tabloids carried screaming headlines claiming that he had "died of shame". If there was any logic to this at all, the implication had to be that the stress of his so-called "shame" had overloaded his already weakened heart. But if stress was a significant factor in his death, then the greatest blame for it must go to the greatest source of stress in his life - the barbaric cruelty of the British tabloid press.
In September 1996 I contacted the Press Complaints Commission regarding misleading, distorted and inaccurate coverage of Eric's death by the Daily Record, Daily Star of Scotland, Edinburgh Evening News, Scottish Daily Mail and Scottish (Daily) Mirror.
These papers heavily implied that Eric had been convicted of being a user of extreme child pornography and might be a child-abuser - things he had, respectively, never been accused of and been actively cleared of.
The Mail, Record and Star stated, and the Evening News implied in a late-edition follow-up, that - as the Record put it - Eric "insisted it was the childhood abuse which led him to seek sordid sexual gratification". There was no excuse of ignorance. The Record, Mail and Evening News quoted Eric on the abuse he'd suffered, taken from interviews in other publications, to support the thesis that he was a self-confessed pervert warped by his own terrible experiences - completely suppressing the fact that these interviews had revolved around his furious denial that he had ever sought "sordid sexual gratification" for any reason whatsoever.
E.g. The Daily Record - self-proclaimed "Scotland's Champion" - had:
FALLEN STAR: Cullen dreamed of being a Hollywood hero but he died of shame
These papers were entitled to disbelieve Eric's version - but not to claim that he had "insisted" the reverse of what they knew he had really said. I was not asking these papers to take sides over the issue of Eric's guilt or innocence: I was and am only trying to get the press to present both sides of the story accurately and fairly.
These papers also portrayed the two "mooning" shots which Eric was accused of taking - which, even if he had taken them (which he hotly denied), were accepted by the Crown as merely "vulgar" - as flagrantly pornographic full-frontals of genitalia, and/or as multiple "photographs of boys in various stages of undress" - a phrase used in court to describe material belonging not to Eric but to his abusers.
The Record and the Mail portrayed Eric as a villain: the others, as perverted but pitiable. The Star and Mirror did mention Eric "claimed" the pornography belonged to his abusers - but neither mentioned that the Crown agreed, and the Mirror said Eric had said he was looking after this material as a favour for his "friend" Currens.
The Star, slightly schizophrenically, did carry a page of glowing tributes from neighbours; but the Record, Mirror and Mail portrayed Eric as having "died of shame" amidst "widespread shock and revulsion at his crimes": a "lonely figure" isolated and abandoned by all right-thinking people - which was so wide of the mark it was farcical.
A small but telling instance of bias was the Mail's description of Eric as a failure at school, implying stupidity - omitting to mention that he had been severely disturbed by atrocious abuse, and had nevertheless gone on to gain a BA degree in Social Sciences and Psychology.
In addition, the Record's prominently portrayed Eric's birth-mother as his "real mum" bereaved of her adored son, who had been turned against her and made miserable by his wicked "showbiz chums" - making out that their estrangement was all Eric's fault. The Record must have been aware of the bitter, mutual and highly public feud between mother and son which it itself had caused.
The Record, Mirror and Star did later report that at Eric's funeral Rev. Stan Cook described Eric as "innocent", but in a way which did little to mitigate the effects of their earlier reports. The Record, e.g., falsely described Eric's minister - who would normally be accepted as an unbiased character-witness - as his "best pal". Rev. Cook was portrayed as probably deluded by sentimental attachment, and as claiming Eric was innocent of being a child-abuser and user of child-pornography - things he had not in fact been accused of. There was no hint of the actual case for Eric's innocence.
The PCC asked for authorization from Eric's next of kin before proceeding. Eric's parents wrote to the Commission telling it to treat my complaint as coming from them, and the PCC accepted my authority to act in this matter and conveyed my complaint to the papers. It centred around inaccuracy in what was reported, and distortion by what was not reported, i.e. any of the evidence in Eric's favour, including the official opinion of the Crown. There were also minor points e.g. concerning gender-bias; and the Record's portrayal of the estrangement between Eric and his so-called "real mum" as due to his being corrupted into callousness by the McFarlans rather than - as was in fact the case - to her decision to sell the story of their reunion to the tabloids against Eric's express wishes.
The Commission sent me copies of the defences submitted by the papers against my complaint, and requested my comments. So far so good, though Bill McFarlan predicted that the PCC would find a way to wriggle out of it; a senior journalist warned me that the Commission exists to protect the interests of the press against the public rather than vice versa; and someone else described complaining to the PCC about the press as "like taking somebody up for poaching before a committee of poachers."
The Star defended its claim Eric "insisted" abuse made him "a gay pervert", saying Bill McFarlan told it so, and Eric had also told the Sun he was gay. Bill actually told the Star memories of abuse made Eric feel "asexual" - sexless - not "homosexual": and the Sun quote was the afore-mentioned disastrous subbing.
The Star asserted that the public would understand references to Eric "hoarding evil child pornography videos" and having a "sordid secret sexlife" as meaning that both the videos and the sordid sex-life had been forced on him against his will. I conducted a survey which proved this wording would cause the public to assume Eric wanted the videos and the sordid sex-life, and sent the results to the PCC. As it turned out this was a wasted effort: events would show that the PCC had no interest in whether the papers' defences were true or reasonable, since it meant to accept them regardless.
The Star's insistence that it was appropriate to refer to Eric's "sordid secret sexlife" because he had been raped reinforced my existing complaint of gender discrimination in breach of the PCC's Code of Practice, on the grounds that no mainstream paper would imagine this was a reasonable way to describe a female rape victim.
The Mirror's defence amounted to "We didn't mean what we said but we're not going to correct it". It admitted it knew what the relationship between Eric and Currens was and suggested that it should have called Currens Eric's "acquaintance" rather than his "friend": again reinforcing my complaint of gender discrimination, since no mainstream paper would call a rapist a "friend" or "acquaintance" of a female victim unless they'd known each other well before the rape.
The Daily Mail's reaction was "This is a long and complicated complaint and we can't be bothered to deal with it". The Mail seems to regard the PCC as a pushover: probably not unconnected with its then Editor-in-Chief being a senior member of the Commission. The Mail on Sunday later published an in-depth article on Eric, which concluded that he was the innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice: but its sister-paper the Daily Mail never retracted its assertion that Eric was a self-confessed pervert who publicly claimed that his own abuse justified his revolting crimes; who had been convicted of offences he was actually cleared of; and who had died an object of universal disgust.
The Record admitted in black and white to deliberate bias and suppression of the evidence, stating that because Eric's version of the charges against him didn't match what it had been told by its contacts it had decided not to report Eric's own statements about his own story (Eric's version of the charges of course matching the Crown's). The text of its answer was even more hysterical and inaccurate than the original articles - being mainly a list of reasons why it thought Eric was a pervert, in the form of wild misquotes of the already very inaccurate data provided by Stephen Wilkie and his anonymous policeman.
I pointed out that the issue of Eric's guilt or innocence was largely irrelevant. The case made for and by Eric was a major part of the story, whether the Record believed it or not and indeed whether it was true or not. Genuine newspapers, as opposed to propaganda rags, are supposed to report all the facts and let their readers make up their own minds: not make readers' minds up for them by filtering those facts to fit their editorial opinion. The Record's sincere if confused belief that Eric had been convicted of taking 300 indecent photographs which the Crown in fact accepted as belonging to Currens did not absolve it from mentioning that large numbers of other persons and organizations thought otherwise.
The Edinburgh Evening News explained that it hadn't had time to do any research so it made it up (really - it wasn't put quite so bluntly, but that was the gist of it). I replied that the Evening News is owned by the same company as, and shares a building with, two prominent Scottish broadsheets which had carried full reports which would be available from their cuttings library.
I demonstrated that most excuses offered by these papers were spurious. Despite this, the PCC swallowed whatever the papers had said on their own behalf and regurgitated it as its adjudication. E.g., the Edinburgh Evening News submitted a defence that it had published a longer and more sympathetic piece in its final edition. I pointed out that this was irrelevant, since this longer piece repeated the same errors as the earlier one plus a few more, and was actually more misleading than the original. The PCC rejected my complaint of inaccuracy against the Evening News on the grounds that it had published a longer piece in its final edition.
The implication was that the Commission never actually read my response to the papers' defences - and asked me to provide one only to create an illusion of giving my complaint a fair hearing, when it had never had any intention of so doing.
One point concerned the Record's headline calling Eric a "pint-sized pervert". The PCC's Code of Practice forbids pejorative reference to physical handicap. It also states that the Code must be honoured in the spirit as well as in the letter. In its adjudication the PCC paraphrased what the Record said about it, which was that Eric's car number-plate was A4 WEE. I considered this was a) irrelevant; b) adhering to the spirit of the Code not "as well as" the letter but instead of it; and c) reinventing that spirit to fit the Commission's current convenience.
Had the Commission presented sensible reasons for rejecting my complaint - reasons which I hadn't already shown were spurious - I would have accepted its judgement. However, the PCC did not deal with my complaint in any meaningful sense.
The Commission's adjudication entirely ignored many points of my complaint. Instead, it pretended I had raised quite different points which fitted the answers it wished to give. For example I had stated at least five times - once for each paper - that I wasn't objecting to these papers expressing the opinion that Eric was a "pervert". Under the PCC's Code of Practice papers are entitled to express any opinion, however unsupported, provided they make it clear that it is just an opinion.
I was complaining about them claiming falsely that Eric had actually been convicted of being an owner and user of "vile" child-pornography and an habitual manufacturer of numerous grossly indecent images. However, the PCC piously rejected my complaint about the papers expressing the opinion that Eric was a pervert - which I hadn't made - on the grounds that the papers were entitled to express any opinion they liked - which I'd already said.
The Commission took the line that it was understandable that the papers had made the assumptions that they did. In fairness to the tabloids, at the time of Eric's original court-case even one broadsheet journalist who was supporting him had assumed the "vulgar" photo's both belonged to Eric and showed boys "flashing". However, there was no justification for any paper to claim that Eric himself admitted taking these photo's (other than in pleading guilty), since his very detailed and forceful statements to the contrary had been prominently reported, and some of the tabloids were certainly in possession of these statements which they quoted as regarded other matters.
In any case, the fact that it was understandable that reporters might have become confused as to what Eric was charged with and why was irrelevant. The PCC's Code of Practice states that papers must distinguish between opinion and fact, and correct any serious errors which may occur: it does not except errors resulting from honest misunderstanding, or opinions which seemed reasonable on the basis of that misunderstanding. By suggesting that it does, the Commission was once again a) adhering to the spirit of the Code instead of the letter; and b) making that spirit up as it went along.
The PCC did acknowledge errors of fact in all cases, but ruled that these were not significant enough to warrant correction. That is, it did not consider that portraying a man who had been cleared by the Crown of being a user of child-pornography as having been convicted of being a user of child-pornography was a significant error!
There was absolutely no indication that this irrelevant ruling, which failed to adress either much of my complaint or the PCC's own Code of Practice, was intended to be other than completely final. Unlike the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Press Complaints Commission is not a statutory body. It answers to no-one, and there is no redress if it doesn't do its job. However, this is the sort of thing we have MPs for.
I contacted Robin Cook, who is based near me and has an interest in the press. Mr Cook wrote back expressing sympathetic interest but referring me to my constituency MP Malcolm Chisholm - the MP who later resigned from the Cabinet on a point of principle. Malcolm has proved to be an absolute gem.
Malcolm contacted the PCC, informing it he had also written to Chris Smith. Almost by return he received from Lord Wakeham, the Commission's chairman, a letter so defensive that a teacher friend said it sounded like a shifty schoolboy explaining why he hadn't done his homework. Lord Wakeham protested that the PCC was not "a committee of poachers" since it also has lay members, and said what a pity it was I hadn't expressed my dissatisfaction to the Commission at the time, and if I would state my reasons for considering that my complaint had not been dealt with adequately he would speak to the Commission about re-opening it.
Lord Wakeham stated that the Commission's main reason for rejecting my complaint was that Eric was no longer alive to comment and only he could know the full facts. I wrote to him as follows:
'This is entirely irrelevant. I was extremely careful to confine my complaint to matters which were in the public domain and/or could be confirmed by persons directly involved and still living; i.e. with whether the papers concerned had presented an accurate, undistorted picture of the known events of the case. We do not need Cullen himself, alive, to confirm that he made such-and-such a statement to the press, when it was quoted verbatim by The Scotsman and The Herald. We do not need him to tell us that the Crown accepted absolutely that he was not the owner or user of the tapes found in his possession, nor that the sheriff at the original court-case stressed that he was not being accused of being a child-abuser, nor that the conduct of Strathclyde Police towards Cullen was severely criticized by the Lord Advocate - these things are documented.
Presumably you mean that only Cullen himself could know whether or not he really was a "gay pervert" etc.. This is beside the point. I stated repeatedly that I was not complaining about these papers giving their opinion that Cullen was a "pervert" etc.: just to their falsely presenting this as the opinion of the Crown; and suppressing all evidence to the contrary even where this had received wide coverage from the heavyweight elements of the media...
Cullen's living word would not contribute particularly to the debate: since the Commission would have no proof that he was telling the truth. We have to consider information which is available and provable, which the papers which were the subject of my complaint signally failed to do.'
Lord Wakeham stated that one criterion used in assessing complaints of distorted coverage was whether a report had made it clear there were two sides to a story. I pointed out that whilst these papers had presented two sides, they had invented Eric's - claiming his explanation was that he was a pervert excused by his own suffering, or that he was doing a favour for a paedophile "friend". This was more misleading than openly one-sided coverage - making readers think they'd been told Eric's version of events and there was nothing more to say for him.
Lord Wakeham's letter included a summing-up of the case as the PCC understood it. This listed my original complaint, and the papers' responses to that complaint, in some detail - if not very accurately. But it made no mention at all of the reply in which I had refuted almost all of the papers' responses - even though the PCC itself had asked me to make that reply. Given that in its original ruling the PCC had simply accepted the papers' excuses as gospel even though I had shown they were rubbish, I have every reason to believe that it had never even read my reply - and that I was asked to make it for purely cosmetic reasons.
Lord Wakeham's summing up of the case also misunderstood/misrepresented many of the points in the original complaint. I pointed out these distortions, and the general omission of any mention of my original reply.
A detailed document, setting out exactly why I considered that the PCC had not dealt with my complaint adequately, was sent to Lord Wakeham on 4th February 1998 as per his request.
In March 1998 Eric's abusive uncle Jack Williams was convicted of extreme sexual offences against three boys. In covering this, the Record, Star and Mirror again portrayed Eric himself as a user of extreme child-pornography. All stated that Eric had been "jailed for... possessing obscene videos, showing him with two under-age boys" - an identical distortion which they must have copied verbatim from some press agency report. The Star in addition printed a vast headline describing Eric as "WEE PERVY", a photograph captioned "... Evil abusers turned Cullen into a perv" and statements that Eric had been "nicknamed Wee Pervy after a child porn conviction" and had "claimed William's [sic] sexual abuse had turned HIM into a perv" after having been "jailed for child porn offences".
The tabloid tendency to refer back only to their own previous pieces, without outside input, magnifies inaccuracies by "Chinese Whispers". E.g., in covering Eric's death the Mirror, despite prominently describing Currens as Eric's "friend", did also say "Cullen claimed he paid Currens... blackmail money to stop him from naming the actor as one of his sex victims". By the funeral report the Mirror, quoting itself out of context, had made Currens Eric's "friend" impure and simple. Had the PCC adjudicated in favour of my original complaint, an accurate account would have appeared as a correction in all these papers and been filed under "Wee Burney" where the reporters covering Williams could see it. Since only their editors had seen my complaint, they reproduced the same rubbish.
I raised a supplementary complaint - mainly in hopes of galvanizing the PCC into action. A few weeks later I withdrew this secondary complaint against the Record (only) since it had published a much fairer, more accurate piece on the occasion of Williams being sentenced. Then I largely forgot about it.
In July I wrote to Malcolm pointing out that it was now five months since I had sent Lord Wakeham my reasons for considering the PCC's adjudication inadequate, and I had still had no response. Malcolm wrote to the PCC, which then sent me a reply which I could see at once was negative. This arrived close to the anniversary of Eric's death, and owing to emotional stress I was unable to look at it in detail for several weeks.
When I did, I discovered the PCC had again replied to a question it hadn't been asked. Instead of answering Malcolm's enquiry as to the status of Lord Wakeham's offer to re-open my original complaint, its response concerned the ancillary complaint about coverage of the trial of Eric's uncle.
Enclosed was a ruling on this secondary complaint which it claimed it had already sent me, although I hadn't received it. It rejected my complaints against the Record, Star and Mirror (despite my having withdrawn the one against the Record) on the grounds that I wasn't directly involved (even though it was in possession of a letter from Eric's parents telling the Commission to regard me as their proxy).
Accompanying this was a letter, addressing me but in response to Malcolm's inquiry, stating that:
"These complaints went over much of the essential matters raised by your original complaints and the Commission were of course aware of your objections on these when they considered the more recent matters.
The fact remains that the Commission did not feel that it could deal more fully with the alleged inaccuracies in the unhappy circumstance that Eric Cullen is no longer alive to comment on the events in his life."
This is obvious nonsense.
Once again the PCC was making its so-called Code of Practice up as it went along.
In September I pointed out to Malcolm that I had still not received any word on the status of Lord Wakeham's offer to re-open the original complaint, seven and a half months after providing the documentation he requested. The indications were that even if the Commission responded it would again say "we cannot deal with this because the subject is dead" despite this being demonstrably irrelevant. The PCC seems to have no interest in reasoned assessment of complaints, but only in finding any excuse to sidle out of a complaint involving papers whose editors are prominent members of the Commission. I believe Lord Wakeham only offered to re-open the case because he knew Robin Cook was interested, and once Mr Cook looked less like Blair's successor-in-waiting he decided he could safely ignore the matter.
I pre-empted the PCC and sent what was basically a preliminary version of this article to Roger Gale MP, Vice Chairman of the Conservative Backbench Media Committee. He wrote to Lord Wakeham pointing out that the whole affair is now a matter of "legitimate Parliamentary record", he would be grateful if Lord Wakeham would now "respond very specifically to each of the individual points" in my complaint, and he "await[ed his] detailed response with very considerable interest".
Lord Wakeham, however, again rejected my complaint on the grounds that:
Even more interesting, characteristic and symptomatic, this reply by Lord Wakeham was tacked onto the end of the exact same summation of the case which he had sent to Malcolm Chisholm a year before. It had obviously just been Copy-and-Pasted from the original. You may remember that on that occasion I had written to Lord Wakeham about the fact that his summation distorted many of the points in my original complaint, and omitted the whole of my reply to the papers' responses. Yet here was that exact same text, with all its inaccuracies.
Once again, it seemed clear that the PCC had not read what I had written and had never had any intention of doing so. The whole business about offering to re-open the case, asking me to explain why I felt my complaint had not been dealt with properly etc. had been nothing but a front to fob off Malcolm Chisholm.
Roger Gale and I wrote back pointing out that:
Lord Wakeham, however, replied that the PCC's ruling is final and it has nothing further to say on the matter. I am therefore proposing to take it up with the Court of Human Rights at The Hague. Roger Gale considers that I have a good case, but I have to think it through thoroughly and decide exactly how I am going to present it before I begin, since I can't afford a lawyer.
In spring 1999, following reports about a book being written about Eric by his friend Bill McFarlan, Edinburgh Evening News columnist Helen Martin wrote that "The fact is that Eric was found in possession of child porn videos. Yes, he was a victim himself. So are many practising (unlike Eric) paedophiles. That may explain in part, but it doesn't excuse. It doesn't help us forgive their crimes or their support of an illegal industry which subjects children to assault in the name of entertainment. It doesn't, no matter what [Bill] wants to believe, turn them into innocent victims." (Eric and Bill had in fact founded a charity specifically to combat the child-porn industry).
I 'phoned the writer concerned: and she was actually very apologetic and helpful when she heard the true facts. She printed a correction stating that Eric's supporters say that the pornographic tapes etc. found at Eric's house had been dumped on him by his abusers (and saying that if this was true then it was "the most appalling miscarriage of justice ever") - followed by a letter from myself pointing out that this was also the official opinion of the Crown.
This means that, alone of the five papers which were the subject of my complaint, the Evening News has now informed readers of the all-important point that the Crown - not just a handful of sentimental friends - believed that Eric Cullen was not a "child-porn pervert". It also demonstrates why it is so important to get corrections into print. Perfectly decent, well-intentioned journalists who happen to be in a hurry get their "facts" by rummaging through their own paper's clippings file on a given subject. Even if an editor acknowledges an error, if the correction never appears in the paper itself it never gets into the clippings library, so the inaccuracies of the original story are endlessly regurgitated.
It also proves conclusively that I was right in the first place - when I complained to the PCC that the Evening News' original coverage of the story would mislead people into thinking Eric was the owner and user of the "library of pornographic material" which the Crown itself said belonged to his abusers.
Even if the Press Complaints Commission had responded adequately to my complaint, and even ruled in my favour, it is clear that it would have done so not because it had given serious consideration to the issues involved but because I threatened to hit it with a big stick. As the former publicity officer of a human rights charity I have the confidence and know-how to do so: but anybody who lacked my prior experience and bloody-minded persistence would have even less hope of getting a fair hearing.
Many people in Britain regard the press not as a champion of liberty but as a force of oppression in its own right. A dealer in Japanese antiquities - not someone who would normally be considered disenfranchized - once said to me with regard to the British press and the PCC "I hate the lot of them, but we're only little people: what can we do?"
I fear that the system in which editors sit on a committee adjudicating on complaints against their own papers means that no major complaint will ever be passed except by threatening to hit the Commission with a big stick. It's like finding that the defendant in a court-case is also the judge, the jury and both the defence and prosecution counsel. The more respectable tabloids promise piously that they will abide by the rulings of the PCC - but that's an easy promise to make when they themselves decide what those rulings will be.
It would surely be fairer if voting-rights on complaints were confined to the lay members of the Commission, with the press members acting in a purely advisory capacity. As things are, the "little people" don't stand a chance.
Labour doesn't want to limit the freedom of the press by making the PCC a statutory body. However, this basically just means giving legal status to the Code of Practice. The Code allows papers to say whatever they like (within the limits of e.g. libel laws which already apply): it simply requires them to correct errors, and to differentiate between fact and speculation - hardly the end of the free world. At present the Code is - as Charles Moore, Editor of The Daily Telegraph and a prominent member of the Commission, put it - like Stalin's constitution for the Soviet Union: wonderful in theory, but in practice not worth the paper it's written on because not applied.
This is a quite separate matter to the issue of privacy laws. In considering whether or not to introduce stronger laws to protect the privacy of the individual, there is a possible conflict between the interests of the individual and those of the wider public who may - for whatever reason - want or need the individual's privacy to be invaded.
As regards tightening up the accuracy of press coverage, the interests of the individual and of the wider public are identical. Not only is it against the individual's interests to be lied about - it is against the public's interests to be lied to. This was particularly true in Eric's case, since he was not just a public figure but one who was very much loved, and many people will have been cause quite unnecessary distress by the entirely false reports that he was a "child-porn pervert" etc..
A journalist called Meg Henderson wrote that Eric had cause great emotional harm and loss of innocence to children, because they had had to find out that a public figure they had trusted and admired really had sexual designs on them. Eric of course had no such designs: but since the press caused children to think that he had, the harm will have been done anyway.
We uphold the unique rights of the press because it claims to perform a public service, disseminating the facts readers need to make informed judgements. If its product is largely fictional - as in Eric's case - and it doesn't bother to correct it when this is pointed out, then it isn't real news but disinformation which actually makes it harder for readers to make informed choices; it isn't a public service, just commercial entertainment; it isn't sacrosanct; and there's no reason why it shouldn't be subject to the same controls as broadcasting.
Most con artists attempt to extract a lot of money from each of a few victims. Papers which present wild invention or unsubstantiated rumour as if it were real news are perpetrating a confidence-trick designed to extract a little money from each of hundreds of thousands of people - but the motive is much the same, and the profits even greater.
Personally, I would propose the following:
In response to Malcolm Chisholm's intervention I received a letter from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport saying that the PCC provides a valuable public service free of charge, that making it a statutory body would be unprecedented and unworkable, and that the government would only do so if the system of self-regulation broke down completely. I wrote back pointing out that the Broadcasting Standards Commission provides a clear precedent and a similar public service and works very well, and that the only reason self-regulation couldn't be said to have broken down was that in order to have broken down it would have to have been working in the first place.
I didn't get a reply.