Stirred with sympathy for fake sheikh victim

From the “Hitler diaries”, to Martin Boorman’s South American hideaway, to the latest shaky football story, hoaxes are a reporter’s nightmare, writes NORMAN GILLER

My heart bled for that fine Times reporter Oliver Kay when he got sucked in by the great Qatar football hoax.

Less a dream, more a nightmare: the hoax Qatar story as it appeared in The Times
Less a dream, more a nightmare: the hoax Qatar story as it appeared in The Times

He will beat himself up for the rest of his life for falling for what those of us blessed with 20/20 hindsight can see was an obvious deception. In this monumental week when press regulation is top of the menu, I applaud The Times for quickly biting the bullet and admitting they got it wrong.

After at first stoutly insisting the story was true, football editor Tony Evans went into print with the confession that the newspaper had been tricked. He made his admission the moment he had been furnished with the full farcical facts. It is the sort of instant story withdrawal that will become increasingly common in the wake of the all-party agreement to create a powerful new press regulator.

True to David Cameron’s word, the government did not cross the Rubicon. But they paddled and piddled in it and left our precious Freedom of the Press distinctly bruised and weakened.

Today an inch. Tomorrow a yard? Down the road, a mile. All those encouraging restrictions should be careful what they wish for.

All the regulation in the world would not have saved Oliver Kay from his embarrassment. Most of us know of the hoaxer who was apparently involved in the scam, and I am not going to give him the oxygen of publicity by naming him.

Once you are hooked, it is virtually impossible to escape the fraud. I am sure The Times will be introducing a safety net to prevent a similar thing happening. In my early days at the Daily Express the huge reminder boards hung over the editorial department by legendary editor Arthur Christiansen were still on show: “Check and double check your facts and then check again.”

It did not help the Express foreign editor Stewart Steven, who sat beneath the noticeboards. He fell for one of the greatest of all hoaxes when in 1972 he allowed himself to be conned into believing that Hitler’s deputy Martin Boormann was alive and living in South America.

I sat 20 feet from Stewart and watched this brilliant journalist in his moment of euphoria and then the humiliation when the story was proved to be the invented nonsense of a con-man.

The Sunday Times was taken in by the forged Hitler Diaries … Clifford Irving was sent to prison for faking the autobiography of Howard Hughes … and more recently Piers Morgan, when editor of the Mirror, got duped by the fake photographs of British soldiers allegedly torturing an Iraqi prisoner.

A word of warning to those journalists who trawl the internet for their stories: be very careful before being tempted to lift and print. Many spout rumour, gossip and opinion as fact, and there are those who just make things up for the hell of it.

Then there are satirical websites like Les Cahiers du Football, where the fake sheik story about the make-believe Qatar tournament first appeared. If the facts seem to be too incredible, then they probably are.

In this new era of transparency, I recommend the Tony Evans confession as a mantra for all journalists: “When we are wrong, we will hold our hands up. It’s the right thing to do.”

It’s all that matters: that it’s right.

Note to Oliver Kay: don’t punish yourself too much. There but for the grace ….

I HAVE NO idea of the agenda of Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig, but his decision to allow long-serving sports editor Malcolm Vallerius to leave the title makes little sense to me.

Malcolm, who cut his teeth on the Watford Observer, gave more than 20 years sweat and blood to the MoS, the last 12 as a sports editor with safe hands. He was imaginative and industrious, and kept happy a ship in which he quite rightly proudly projected the unparalleled Patrick Collins as his main voice.

You will not find anybody in our often brutal business with a bad word to say about Malcolm, and I wish him luck with whatever the future holds.

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