Val Goulden is not famous or powerful but as a lecturer she won an industrial tribunal. Did this make her fair game for a tabloid investigation? Francis Beckett reports. Like journalist Polly Toynbee, college lecturer Val Goulden knows what it is like to have Daily Mail reporters rooting about in her private life. After a series of visits to friends and relations, including her former husband's elderly mother and her partner's 16-year-old son, the paper printed two articles she found extremely unpleasant.
A media studies lecturer, she was able to put the incident to use in her media studies classes at Halton College of Further Education in Cheshire. "I showed a group of mature students my original statement and asked them, as an assignment, to compare it with the hysterical article the Mail printed. But it was a painful exercise for me," she says.
Ms Goulden seems a strange subject for a newspaper investigation. She is not famous or powerful. But the Mail reported that she won an industrial tribunal and that she appeared to bring "a feminist slant" to "almost every aspect of her teaching" - an allegation she denies. Mail reporter Andrew Loudon, explaining his investigation, said that "the evidence from the tribunal suggested she was the epitome of political correctness, and this made her an interesting person". "Standard journalistic enquiries" were made to check on her background, he said, adding that "she made her background fair game by going to an industrial tribunal".
Goulden's troubles began when one of her A-level students, Steven McIntyre, wrote a note about her teaching on a student assessment form. "Being a male I felt I was being intimidated and felt like I wasn't able to add to any debate or argument . . . I felt like I was being made to feel ashamed of being a man . . . I think she was using the course to dictate and indoctrinate her own personal views and opinions and also to get out her own hatred of men. Like all feminists I think she became one because she hasn't got a clue how to handle men."
College principal Martin Jenkins took the criticism seriously, and set up a formal enquiry headed by his deputy which interviewed all media studies students in Mr McIntyre's group. This failed to find any evidence against Goulden apart from the fact that she once wrote "sexist pig" in the margin of another student's essay. Colleagues say she has a relaxed relationship with her students, who, they thought, would have taken that as gentle humour. Nonetheless the college decided that her lectures should be monitored for a year for "ideological bias".
Goulden complained to an industrial tribunal, which quashed the plan in March last year. There was no evidence that there was anything wrong with her teaching, it said. She had given evidence against the college at a colleague's earlier industrial tribunal. "That, we find, coloured what happened subsequently," said the tribunal. And that was the end of the matter.
Except that soon after the tribunal verdict, her worried next door neighbour looked in. A Daily Mail reporter called Andrew Loudon had called to ask about Val. "She's divorced, isn't she?" (Yes, she is). "Single parent, isn't she?" (Yes, she is).
Next her partner's former wife telephoned. The Daily Mail had spoken, separately, to her and her 16-year-old son, asking whether they blamed Val for the break-up of the marriage. (They do not).
Next her former husband got in touch. A Mail reporter had telephoned his mother, an elderly and infirm woman who had had three heart attacks, again asking about the marriage breakup. Then a former neighbour from her old home in Runcorn got in touch. She, too, had had a Mail man on her doorstep.
"By this time I was scared. It worried me particularly that they would go to my mother, because she was not well. Also, I hadn't told her about my industrial tribunal - she would have worried dreadfully at the idea of my losing my job."
At last Loudon knocked on Val's own door. He stood on the doorstep and threw a stream of facts about her life at her - her divorce, her children, their names, her parents. "Who are you? I want to know. I'm giving you this chance to talk," he said. Goulden kept as calm as she could and refused to say anything.
The paper printed a detailed account of her private life in an article by Stephen Oldfield, illustrated by a picture of Goulden with her arms folded. Seven years previously, wrote Mr Oldfield, "Miss Goulden lost her lover in a climbing accident only four months before her father died from a heart attack. However she rejected the idea - now part of college legend - that these events drove her towards feminism". Everyone I spoke to at her college denies that this proposition is "part of college legend".
The article said she declined to talk about herself, "but from official records it is known that she was born to lorry driver Wilfred Gouldman and his wife Jean". Her parents "mysteriously" changed the family name from Gouldman to Goulden.
It is true that her parents changed the family surname, but there is no mystery. Like many Jews of their generation, they were concerned to protect their children from anti-Semitism.
Oldfield then dealt with her marriage in 1970, her divorce eight years later, and her relationship with fellow lecturer Paul Roberts which ended with his death on Y Garn in Snowdonia.
The next day Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn described Goulden as "a ghastly harridan". He has never spoken to her. She is a calm, intelligent and quietly spoken woman. But she is hurt and angry.
Her advice to those involved in tribunal hearings related to sex or race equality is to prepare in advance by warning relatives that newspapers might make enquiries. "Don't speak to them, and tell everyone who is close to you not to speak either. Hold your head up, grit your teeth, and carry on as though it doesn't matter. Be prepared for hate mail and worse - my son was attacked in a pub over the article. And do not rely for redress on the Press Complaints Commission - they turned my complaint down flat."
"When it happens you feel powerless to protect yourself, yet you have done nothing wrong," she added.
Lawrence Sear, Daily Mail managing editor said he had nothing to add to the PCC judgement.