Petronella Wyatt on Wikipedia

You have to laugh at the way that many newspapers are still struggling to make sense of the internet. In many cases it’s largely because their writers have no idea what they are talking about when they are covering the subject. Here’s a great example from the Daily Mail.

On Sunday, Daily Mail columnist Petronella Wyatt (daughter of the extremely unpleasant Mail writer Woodrow Wyatt) turned her attention to Wikipedia. As an experiment she created an article about herself – thereby ignoring the fundamental Wikipedia rule that only other people can decide that you are notable enough to justify an entry. She then sat back for a few days to see what people made of it.

And she was appalled. People said terrible things about her. Or, at least, that’s how she tells it:

I decided to look at the entry again. As I did so, I leapt out of my chair howling. Beneath my original paragraph were five new ones, depicting me as a monster of depravity.

To internet users, the British journalist Petronella Wyatt was a combination of Messalina (the Roman Empire’s most famous prostitute) and Lady Godiva with a bad case of bipolar hypomania. Among the more startling was the allegation that I frequently rode to hounds “bare-breasted”.

Apparently, I had done this many times while visiting in Virginia in the U.S., causing “huntsmen to blow their horns in panic”, horses to bolt and children to “utter petrified cries”.

Allegedly, so many men decided to attend the hunt in order to see my exposed poitrine that an unprecedented number of divorce actions followed.

What Ms. Wyatt fails to realise is that all Wikipedia entries have a history. And no matter what deletions and corrections are made to the entry, the history remains. So her claims can be checked. Having nothing better to do last night I looked through the (rather short) history of the article. The closest I can find to what Wyatt describes are these three paragraphs that were apparently removed by Wyatt herself on April 12th

It was alleged that she had had an affair with Boris Johnson, fellow journalist on Spectator and politician, and that she got pregnant and underwent an abortion when Johnson refused to leave his wife for her. Her father’s diaries, published after his death, mentioned that Archbishop of Canterbury once stared at his daughter Petronella’s bosom for a long moment. Woodrow Wyatt’s critics targeted her father’s attempt to get her entry into an Oxford College as a misuse of political influence.

For six months commencing in 2003, Petsy lived with American Charles Bruce Berry at his home in Charlottesville, Virgina, where she participated in his horse-and-hound centered lifestyle. Many of her columns in late 2003 focus on her experiences in the US foxhunting and observing American holidays such as Thanksgiving. She foxhunted with Farmington Hunt in Virginia, where members called her “Petrified Petronella,” when they were not staring at her breasts, whose cleavage was remarkably exposed, despite her hunting attire.

According to Berry’s ex-wife, Charlotte von Lilienfeld (her father was West Germany’s Ambassador to the United States from 1961 to 1968, to Iran from 1968 to 1974 and to Spain from 1974 to 1980), Petsy happily left the States just before Christmas of 2003 “screaming” because Berry had been so emotionaly and verbally abusive to her. Little did he know that he was serving as her “beard” as she flew from the charms of Boris Johnson. Many people she interacted with in Charlottesville thought she seemed “drowsy,” “drugged up,” or “on tranquilizers.”

Now, that’s perhaps not the kind of thing that you want people saying about you. But to my mind it falls far short of the insults that Wyatt claims to have seen in the article.

It seems likely that Ms. Wyatt genuinely didn’t realise that Wikipedia articles have a history, so she didn’t know that her claims could be checked out quite so easily. But given that she has so obviously used “journalistic licence” exaggerate this event, how much can you trust anything else that she writes?

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