By PETER CALDER
Whatever else might be said about the sensational British Sunday newspaper story making drugs and sex allegations about Olympic equestrian champion Mark Todd, we can be sure of one thing: the paper will have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure it can stand the story up in court.
Fleet St veterans now working in this country say the level of detail in the story makes it plain that the quotes attributed to Todd will have been recorded - and that there may even be videotaped footage of the activities described.
The Sunday Mirror story, splashed over three pages and headed "Sordid Drug Shame of Double Olympic Champ," alleged that Todd used cocaine with a gay man they call David in a hotel near Oxford.
In that peculiarly coy Victorian terminology that British tabloids use when referring to non-heterosexual, it also alleges that Todd "performed a lewd sexual act" and, at another point that "sexual acts followed."
The story - which has spread a dark cloud over Todd's Olympic selection prospects - is the kind of shock-horror scandal which is one of the principal weapons in the fierce circulation battles between British newspapers.
The kindest thing that may be said about many of them is that their accuracy is questionable.
It is an industry in which lies can be lucrative. A sensational fiction can earn more in newspaper sales and advertising revenue than it costs a paper in a defamation payout - particularly if the paper settles out of court.
The Express on Sunday paid sterling 250,000 ($750,000) to stars Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise after having published an article in 1997 saying that the couple was gay and that their marriage was a sham.
And the Daily Mirror published apparently doctored photos in 1992 to back up their story that singer Michael Jackson was "hideously disfigured" by plastic surgery.
They settled with the singer for an undisclosed sum, but in neither case would the entirely fictional stories have done any damage to the paper's circulations.
Sometimes, though, the tabloids' sensationalism can prove more costly. In the most infamous case, the Sun paid millions of pounds to singer Elton John after publishing false sex allegations - far outweighing any gain in circulation.
But a New Zealand reporter who has worked for the British tabloids the Sun and the Daily Mirror says that the Sunday Mirror story is too explicit and detailed to have been invented.
What's more, he adds, the story is so plainly defamatory if untrue, that we may be sure the paper has irrefutable proof of its accuracy.
The reporter, who spoke on condition that his name wasn't used, said tabloid reporters generally acted on a tip-off only if the informant had a good track record of reliability.
"But then they set the person up to prove what's gone on. At the very least a hidden microphone or using one of the tiny little cameras you can get now."
He said it was common for newspapers not to publish everything they had.
"You keep a bit in reserve in case they want to sue, because you can threaten to release more."
The Sunday Mirror piece is notable for the almost microscopic level of detail.
"They go to extraordinary lengths to get every single detail because they have to be able to stand it up in court," the reporter said.
"They have a very high standard of proof, higher than a broadsheet paper, because generally broadsheet papers don't publish that sort of story."
Paradoxically, that attention to detail protects the individuals the tabloids feed off, he says.
But a freelance photographer who has worked for the tabloids, says he finds it improbable that there is video footage of Todd and David.
"If there was a video they would have run something on it," he says.
The argument about accuracy, of course, begs the question of the story's validity. Celebrities' lives are newsworthy for no other reason than that they are celebrities; fame is a self-fuelling sort of perpetual motion machine.
And in Britain, sports stars in general and soccer players in particular, are the most stellar of celebrities. England's rugby captain Will Carling's friendship with the late Princess Diana made headlines even though there was no evidence that they were lovers; the tantalising idea could be conjured up without ever being stated.
Another England rugby captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, was implicated after being taped with a woman and drugs in a hotel room and cricketer Shane Warne last week faced phone sex allegations, via the tabloids, from a woman he had met in a pub.
Heather Tonkin, the Whitford woman who brought a paternity suit against Captain Mark Phillips, then husband of Princess Anne, was staked out by Fleet St's finest for weeks and hasn't got a good word to say about them.
"They tap telephones, they steal material and half of them should be locked up," she says. "If you're polite to them they push over the top of you. There doesn't seem to be any sort of line."
But she also has deep misgivings about whether stories like the Mark Todd one should be published at all.
"I feel very sorry about what they've written, whatever Mark has done. I just find the intrusion into people's private lives disgraceful.
"Surely the public doesn't require people to be skinned down to the skeleton and then soul-destroyed in the public interest. I feel very sorry for the family."
Such sympathy would seem misplaced to the hardened hacks of Fleet St. Todd himself is quoted in the Mirror story as wanting to use other drugs but fearing that they would be picked up by Olympic drug testing.
"These are class A drugs," one reporter says. "He's committing criminal offences and he's in a position where New Zealand taxpayers are helping pay for him to go to the Olympics and giving him a profile which he markets to commercial advantage. I think there is a legitimate public interest in that."
The newsworthiness of celebrities' sex lives is much more moot. While New Zealand newspapers generally regard the sex lives of politicians, for example, as off-limits, no such restraint is seen in Britain. The freelance photographer I spoke to yesterday remembers taking pictures of a soccer star who was sexually involved with three people at the same time.
When I suggested that might be his own business, he pointed out that the soccer star had boasted of his happy domestic life. But - after a pause - he added: "I certainly didn't like doing them. But the rules have changed over the last five years. Things have toned down a lot since the [death of Diana, Princess of Wales]. That put the brakes on a lot of Fleet St editors."
Given the record of reporters on the British tabloids, one could hardly blame a celebrity who had to rely on the journalist's integrity for feeling a little vulnerable.
A reporter I spoke to on the Sun in the small hours of Monday London time, cooed with surprise when I asked if his paper ever set celebrities up.
"Och, noo," he said, in a broad Scots brogue. "We tend to rely on our own contacts."
I spent 10 minutes explaining that I was trying to write a piece about the modus operandi of a tabloid reporter, but he seemed to have trouble understanding.
"If you're looking for a follow-up," he said, "why don't you just scalp the quotes from the Sunday Mirror piece and dress them up as your own? I've done that myself a few times, don't you worry."