The story had it all: sex, drugs and TV stars. But for John Leslie, can there ever be a happy ending?
I am an innocent man. I have maintained my innocence throughout and today it has been justified ... You have no idea what this has done, what today means. For the last 10 months my family and I have been taken to hell and back.
By Terry Kirby Chief Reporter
01 August 2003
As John Leslie faced the media scrum outside Southwark Crown Court yesterday, the strain of the past 10 months - during which his television career has crumpled amid multiple accusations of sex attacks - was evident: his features were grey and drawn, his speech strained and he was close to tears.
Meanwhile, the woman who inadvertently set in train the events that led to yesterday's courtroom drama was 30 miles away at her home in Cookham Dean, Berkshire, also under siege from the media and also under some strain. Asked whether she had any comment on the fact that the charges against Mr Leslie had been dropped, Ulrika Jonsson retorted over the intercom: "I will not be making a comment today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, or not even next year."
Before slamming down the receiver, she added, for good measure: "You people are really wasting your time."
The media has not quite seen it like that. In fact, neither she nor Mr Leslie has made any public comment whatsoever about the suggestion that, in 1988, he was the unnamed man who was alleged to have raped Ms Jonsson when she was the weather presenter at TV-am, an incident described in her autobiography, Honest.
But the destruction of Mr Leslie's career was down to a lethal mix of frenzy and showbiz gossip, fuelled by newspapers willing to report the anonymous claims of a number of women against Mr Leslie.
Ironically, the story of Ms Jonsson's alleged rape was almost overlooked amid another tabloid scramble - the one relating to her affair with the England football manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, first revealed earlier in the year. Then there were the relationships between the Swedish-born television presenter and various other celebrities, her failed marriage and the heart defect suffered by her daughter, Bo.
All of these rich pickings were no doubt at the forefront of the minds of the Daily Mail executives - normally no slouches in the sex 'n' celebrity stakes - which missed the rape claims after they paid an estimated £700,000 for the serial rights to Honest last autumn, buying chapters that did not include the account.
In it, Ms Jonsson did not name the "good-looking presenter" who asked her for a date when she was on a filming assignment. But, as she described, the night went horribly wrong when he launched himself at her: "I landed on my back and remember saying out loud, 'No, no, don't.' This was the first point that I began to feel fear.
"I felt that I had somehow lost control of him and that I didn't have the power to stop him ... all that I could do was beat with my fists on his back and kick a little with my legs. He ignored me."
But, as part of the promotional blitz, Ms Jonsson had also agreed to an accompanying documentary, Ulrika Jonsson: The Trouble with Men, during which she described the incident on camera. After the press saw previews of the film, their excitement knew no bounds and the rumour mill over the identity of her attacker began turning.
Over the next few days, Mr Leslie's name was being openly, but not publicly, linked to the claims by Ms Jonsson. Other women came forward to make similar allegations to the press about the same man. His identity an open secret in media circles, Mr Leslie looked uncomfortable as the controversy was discussed on his show This Morning.
It was Matthew Wright, a former showbiz reporter, who accidentally let out Mr Leslie's name on his Channel 5 show, The Wright Stuff. Although Mr Wright apologised, the London Evening Standard used his error as the green light to name Mr Leslie as the man alleged to have raped Ms Jonsson, and most other newspapers followed suit.
At that point, Mr Leslie, 37, was enjoying a comfortable career on the sofa at GMTV next to Fern Britton. He earned £250,000 a year, and could double that with personal appearances. Originally from Edinburgh, he was a former presenter of Blue Peter who had enjoyed an 18-month relationship in the early Nineties with Catherine Zeta Jones, then a rising star. He had a large west London home, a Porsche and, as a tall, good-looking single male, a regular place on the celebrity circuit. He was known for having a string of girlfriends.
Mr Leslie's life was turned upside-down. He was immediately suspended and then sacked from his job by Granada Television, to be replaced by the squeaky clean Philip Schofield. In the wake of the Angus Deayton affair, GMTV was taking no chances, and executives were given some cover when photographs of him apparently snorting cocaine were later published in the News of the World.
The station's executives were irked that Mr Leslie had not issued any statement rebutting the claims. Instead, he is believed to have told friends that the alleged rape was "consensual sex" and that the fact that Ms Jonsson had spent four days in hospital afterwards was due to a bout of cystitis.
As the furore continued, Mr Leslie retreated to his home and indulged in comfort eating. Snatched photographs showed him looking unkempt and overweight. He spent a lot of time in the company of a former girlfriend, Abby Titmuss, a nurse. She was at his side yesterday.
"One moment John was a star, receiving 1,000 fan letters a week, and the next he was an object of revulsion," one friend confessed to the Daily Mail. "He was depressed and utterly bewildered at the speed at which his life had changed,'' another told the press.
When Scotland Yard began an investigation, Ms Jonsson refused to co-operate or be formally interviewed. Detectives instead set about investigating allegations by three women involving one rape and two indecent assaults during the Nineties. The women were among more than 20 who came forward. In December, he was arrested and formally questioned. But it was not until June that, after what can be assumed to have been very careful consideration and more inquiries by the police, Mr Leslie was told he would be facing two charges of indecent assault against one of the three women, said to be an actress.
Mr Leslie responded, in his first public statement, by proclaiming his innocence and declaring that he "eagerly awaited" his trial in order to "reclaim my life". In fact, he did not have to wait until the trial: on Wednesday morning, the Crown Prosecution Service telephoned his solicitor to say they were dropping the charges because of new, and so far undisclosed, information from his accuser. His solicitor, Jason McCue, found Mr Leslie on his mobile, shopping in a London high street. "I told him to go outside, and when he had done so, I told him. He broke down in tears.''
Mr Leslie's resistance had been bolstered by the support of Ms Titmuss, his parents and those showbiz colleagues who have stood by him: Ms Britton declared on camera her support for "my friend". Earlier this year, Anthea Turner, herself the subject of much tabloid intrusion, accompanied him and Ms Titmuss to the theatre, his first venture out since last year. Both of them welcomed yesterday's developments.
Mr Leslie also found support among others who have endured trial by tabloid over false or unsupported allegations, such as the presenter Matthew Kelly, investigated over allegations of underage sex, and Neil and Christine Hamilton, accused of sex offences by a fantasist paid £50,000 by the News of the World.
Ms Jonsson, despite losing out to Nancy Dell'Olio in the battle for Mr Eriksson, has done well out of the book, which, no doubt helped by the publicity, proved a decent seller. While Mr Leslie was undergoing trial by tabloid, Ms Jonsson has, she says, found the love of her life, one Lance Gerrard Wright, whom she met while presenting a television dating show, Mr Right, where he was the prize catch for a number of single women. They are due to be married on 16 August, her 36th birthday, on the island of Varmdo, near Stockholm, where Ms Jonsson has an estate. She is said to have rejected a £500,000 offer from Hello! magazine for exclusive rights to her wedding coverage.
Last night, as she and Mr Gerrard Wright stayed behind the gates of her home, Mr Leslie also stayed hidden, discussing with his lawyers and PR advisers whether to bring legal action for damages against Channel 5 and some tabloids. But as Ms Jonsson retreats from the media, Mr Leslie is likely to come out of his legally imposed exile. After a suitable pause, he is certain to try to rebuild his television career and was last night considering, among other offers, a £1m deal with Sky One to front a prime-time chat show.
WHAT THEY SAID
I have to say that the leaking of such information, to my mind, undermines justice and may in some cases actually result in some cases being stayed ... You, of course, are discharged ... without a single stain on your character.
JUDGE GEORGE BATHURST-NORMAN
I do believe in public trial and I do believe that defendants should be identified, as should witnesses in general, but we do have special provisions in rape cases. At the same time, it would be wrong to have trial by media.
LORD WOOLF, LORD CHIEF JUSTICE
I have never made any comments about it and I don't intend to. I will not be making a comment today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, or not even next year. You people are really wasting your time.