A life ripped apart by a few short words

Lawyer attacks 'appalling' police work

VALERIE HANNAH and JAMES McKILLOP

TEN months ago, John Leslie seemed to have it made. After a lacklustre career as a quiz show host and a children's television presenter, the Scot was happily ensconced on the This Morning sofa, carving out a name for himself on daytime TV.

Within days of the publication of an autobiography by Ulrika Jonsson, however, it all came crashing down. Her claim that she had been sexually assaulted sparked frenzied speculation in the media, although she has never named her assailant.

Jonathan Ross referred to the alleged attacker as a well-known TV presenter when Ms Jonsson appeared on his Friday night chat show.

Days later, on October 23, 2002, Matthew Wright, a former tabloid journalist, blurted out John Leslie's name during a live discussion on Channel Five.

Mr Wright apologised immediately, but there was no going back. Within minutes, the claim had spread across the internet; within hours Mr Leslie's name had been published by evening newspapers.

The news filtered through to Mr Leslie as he was preparing to host This Morning. Producers of the show held a series of emergency meetings throughout the day in an attempt to limit the damage, while Mr Leslie declined to make any public comment.

The next day, Fern Britton, his co-host, faced the cameras alone. "I'm missing my partner today and also my friend," she said. "He has asked me to tell you he's having a few days off because he has a few personal things to sort out."

During the next 10 months, Ms Jonsson maintained her silence. The 35-year-old Swedish celebrity, who started as a TV weather girl but became a household name as a host of Gladiators, came in for criticism for refusing to confirm or deny that Mr Leslie was the man referred to in her book.

However, a string of women, some of whom chose not to go to the police, made sexual allegations against Mr Leslie in the media.

His image was attacked, he lost his 250,000-a-year job, faced a lengthy police investigation and was eventually charged with indecent assault. Mr Leslie protested his innocence throughout and promised to fight any allegations made against him.

However, in December last year, he was arrested over sex allegations by three women.

He went to the police voluntarily and was questioned for six hours over allegations that he indecently assaulted one woman in 1997, raped another in 1998, and indecently assaulted a third woman in 2001 - but the latter two claims were never pursued.

Mr Leslie was asked to remain silent in all aspects of the investigation and he lost his job at This Morning because he would not discuss the case with his employers.

In June this year, he was eventually charged with two offences of indecently assaulting the same woman in May 1997 despite widespread media speculation that there would be no charges.

Apparently welcoming the opportunity to clear his name, Mr Leslie said: "There is absolutely no truth in the charge made against me - now I will have the chance to show my innocence in a court of law to a jury of my peers."

Explaining that police had asked him not to speak publicly while they were investigating, he said he was "eagerly" awaiting his trial, which would allow him to "confirm my innocence and reclaim my life".

However, the media interest in the story led to concerns that it would be impossible for him to have a chance to clear his name in a fair trial.

Commentators - including Professor Philip Schlesinger, director of the media research institute at Stirling University - have called on the Press Complaints Commission to prevent such a trial by media from happening again.

"A man has basically lost his job over charges that were never tested in open court. We need to think again about whether this is acceptable," said Professor Schlesinger yesterday.

"The tradition had been until quite recently that, once charges were laid, reporting had to be extremely circumspect, and there has been a departure from that which is difficult to explain."

Other commentators were less critical of the coverage.

Professor Roy Greenslade, a journalism lecturer at City University in London and former tabloid editor, said: "The press are often irresponsible, but that is the price we have to pay for their freedom."

After he was charged, media coverage of the case died down, and Mr Leslie, who once dated Catherine Zeta Jones, became a virtual recluse.

His ordeal ended with a call on his mobile phone while he was out shopping on Wednesday. Jason McCue, his lawyer, wanted to ensure Mr Leslie was sufficiently calm before breaking the news that he was about to be declared an innocent man. "Where are you?" the lawyer asked.

"In a shop in the High Street getting food for tonight," Mr Leslie replied. "Why?"

"I want you to get out of the shop now, because I have something important to tell you."

It was then that Mr McCue broke the news that the Crown Prosecution Service would be dropping the charges. "John just broke down crying," Mr McCue said yesterday.

The collapse of the case casts further doubt on the effectiveness of Scotland Yard's 20-strong special inquiry team - the so-called "celebrity squad".

Coming hard on on the heels of the bungled prosecution of Paul Burrell, the Princess of Wales's former butler, and Harold Brown, a second royal butler, questions were being asked last night about the future of the unit.

Detective Superintendent Nigel Mawer, who led the investigation into the former television presenter, was in Court No 1 yesterday to hear Richard Horwell, Treasury counsel, say the police investigation had been painstaking and professional. However, Mr McCue did not mince his words as he described the police investigation. "It was appalling, absolutely appalling," he said.

After the collapse of the Burrell trial, the unit was criticised for its handling of the case and for "grossly misleading" the Prince of Wales and Prince William.

Part of the Serious Crime Group which became operational almost three years ago, the unit specialises in cases involving royalty, celebrities, and the theft of art and antiques.

Despite the criticism it has faced, the unit has recorded some successes.

It was responsible for the investigation into Lord Archer, recently released from prison after serving half of a four-year sentence for perjury and perverting the course of justice, and the fraud perpetrated by the army major in Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Timeline

October 2002 Ulrika Jonsson's autobiography, Honest, is published. It contains a claim that the 35-year-old was once sexually assaulted by a television presenter.

October 18, 2002 Jonathan Ross questions Ms Jonsson about the claim on his Friday Night show.

October 23, 2002 Matthew Wright blurts out John Leslie's name on his Channel Five programme, The Wright Stuff.

October 30, 2002 Mr Leslie is sacked from This Morning.

December 5, 2002 The former Wheel of Fortune and Blue Peter presenter is arrested over allegations he sexually assaulted three women.

June 2003 Mr Leslie is charged with two offences of indecently assaulting the same woman in May 1997. July 2, 2003 The sacked television presenter is committed to stand trial on two sex charges.

July 31, 2003 The Crown Prosecution Service drops all charges against Mr Leslie.

-Aug 1st