Death or Glory

British journalists like nothing better than to mock their American counterparts: They don’t drink during the day, they’re squeamish about exaggerating their expenses, and then there’s that pesky obsession with fact-checking.

Last month, readers of London’s Daily Mail were treated to an object lesson in American prissiness. Daniel Jeffreys, the paper’s New York correspondent, wrote an eyewitness account of Tracy Housel’s execution in Georgia, where the British prisoner spent sixteen years on death row for rape and murder. It was a riveting read: “What happened will haunt my dreams for years,” wrote Jeffreys solemnly. “We could see Housel mouthing the words ‘I love you.’ ” Moving stuff. There’s just one problem. It’s all made up.

Far from being an eyewitness, as he claimed, Jeffreys never got closer to the gurney than the prison parking lot. Peggy Chapman, a prison spokeswoman, confirms that he applied to be an observer – but his application arrived too late. “The details he wrote,” she says, were “from the photo we gave to everybody.”

The fiction of his account would not have come to light save for the spectacularly competitive nature of the British newspaper business. No sooner had Jeffreys’s story appeared in London than the other British correspondents in New York (who’d also been dispatched to Georgia) promptly heard from their demanding editors. Why had Jeffreys managed to get the scoop when they had failed?

“Everyone got shouted at,” says one journalist who stood alongside Jeffreys, pen poised to interview real eyewitnesses. “It’s very competitive being a foreign correspondent. But you can’t compete with someone who makes things up.”

Such grumbling made its way to the Daily Mail’s rivals, the Guardian and the Independent, both of which bluntly accused Jeffreys of inventing the story. (“Naughty boy,” scolded the Guardian.) Yet, happily for Jeffreys, there’s been no hand-wringing at the Daily Mail. Nor has the paper issued a correction, let alone an apology. (They failed to return New York’s repeated calls.) Indeed, to the bafflement of the other British correspondents here, Jeffreys continues to file stories from his choice post (recent headline: BORN TO BE DEAF – LESBIAN LOVERS WITH NO HEARING DESIGN BABY BOY TO BE LIKE THEM).

This isn’t the first time Jeffreys has gotten caught. He was busted by the Village Voice as far back as 2000 for inventing an interview with Bob Volpe, father of the errant cop Justin. It also appears that during a brief stint as a feature writer for the New York Post, Jeffreys cheerfully cannibalized quotes from one of his own stories – written months earlier for the Times of London under the erudite-sounding pseudonym Gregory Demaine.

In perhaps his most curious article, at least to American eyes, Jeffreys filed a classic post–September 11 piece that boasted he was “one of the first journalists to penetrate the caverns beneath the World Trade Center.”

“What, I have often wondered, does Hell look like?” he mused. “What I saw yesterday was surely close to it.” The piece was singled out for commendation by the British papers, irking competing reporters, who were particularly startled to learn that Jeffreys’s guide turned out to be “a member of the New York Police Department’s elite rescue team.” (Jeffreys insists his tour guide was a secret NYPD source and “dear friend.”) Should Jeffreys’s bosses at the Daily Mail bestir themselves to investigate Jeffreys’s oeuvre, they might check in with Detective Kevin Czartoryski of the NYPD. He is similarly mystified to hear Jeffreys rode shotgun with a sleep-deprived rescue worker. “Could you imagine going up and asking for a tour?” he snorts. “They’d have knocked your lights out!”

Death or Glory