Sharon Marshall, the former TV editor of the News of the World, told the Leveson Inquiry today that she left the newspaper in 2004 after being asked to chase a story which she knew to be untrue.
“It was a celebrity who was pregnant at the time and I was told that her partner was cheating on her, a photo had been given to us or somebody had come forward for a kiss-and-tell story,” she said. “I understood the photo was two years old.”
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She was asked to put the story to the celebrity but instead handed in her resignation.
“In my resignation, which I put on his [the editor’s] desk, I said I was leaving because I had been asked to breach the PCC code and a moral code and I refused to do it.”
Marshall, who is now a resident soap expert on ITV1’s This Morning, was also grilled about the contents of her book Tabloid Girl.
The novel, which has the catchline “A True Story”, was a “dramatised timeline” of events based on anecdotes she had heard from other journalists, Marshall told the inquiry.
“It is based on a true story,” she said. “It is a dramatisation of my time in the industry and legends from the industry.
“I intended it to be a story about a good story. I was writing a comedy, not writing a legal document.
“I should have said ‘based on a true story’. This is a dramatisation – a heightened reality of an industry.”
It is just a shaggy dog tale’
Counsel for the inquiry David Barr asked her about various elements of the book, including a character called Robohack, who romances a famous person’s best friend in order to get a story out of her.
Marshall told him she had created a “heinous character who was supposed to repel the reader” based on stories she had heard about in the pub.
Asked about journalists’ expense claims, some of which she refers to in her book as “highly creative” fraud, she said: “It is just a shaggy dog tale, an entertaining read.
“I was just following the tale that somebody had claimed GBP500 for a camel burial fee. It is a heightened reality. It is intended to be a good yarn.”
But a reporter, who had since died, had claimed for mileage although he could not actually drive, she said.
Barr also questioned her on a phase in her book about phone hacking, where she claimed that everyone working on a tabloid newspaper knew how to intercept voicemail messages.
But Marshall said that by the time the book was written, the information was already in the public domain.
Bullying caused by ‘an overbearing head of department’
The inquiry also heard that the News of the World was “unique” in how it forced staff to leave the company.
The claim was made by Steve Turner, general secretary of the British Association of Journalists, who told the inquiry that disciplinary issues at the newspaper were often “phoney” – but employees accepted that the best course of action was to seek a pay-out for leaving.
“The unique thing at the News of the World was that they were usually phoney things and the individual quickly got the message that they wanted him out.
“That was the point, and they would then say to their head of department ‘Well, you know, I don’t want to hang around where I’m not wanted, what’s the chance we may be able to do something?’.”
He said he would assist journalists prior to disciplinary hearings, but believed it would be used against them if he attended the meetings alongside them.
“I’m ashamed to be telling you this because we’re supposed to be living in a democratic and free country but we’re not,” he said.
Turner advised former News of the World sports reporter Matt Driscoll, who gave evidence to the inquiry yesterday.
He made a successful employment tribunal claim for disability discrimination after he was sacked by the News of the World.
Turner said that in the last three or four years he had been consulted by “between 15 and 20” union members over bullying at tabloid newspapers.
He said bullying was often caused by “an overbearing head of department who is demanding too much work”.
It was not uncommon for the “unrealistic terrorising of people” to lead to nervous breakdowns, he added.
He spoke about a journalist who was told “Just leave, you’re finished” during a time when proper redundancy procedures were due to take place, and another who was victimised after complaining that a regular feature about women doing extraordinary things was fabricated.