News Irish News

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Duping world's press on reclusive Van's 'baby' is festive child's play

Website hacker's ruse aided by 'skeleton' news staffs and star's reputation for guarding privacy

VAN GUARDED: The singer, pictured here with Michelle Rocca Morrison, has always kept a low public profile.
VAN GUARDED: The singer, pictured here with Michelle Rocca Morrison, has always kept a low public profile.
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

TIMING, as they say, is everything. And so the decision by a still unknown individual or individuals to post the announcement that Van Morrison had become a father for the fourth time at the age of 64 on his official website on December 28 proved to be inspired.

Whoever was behind the alleged hacking of the Belfast-born singer's webpage chose their moment to strike to perfection.

Newsrooms starved of interesting morsels to report during the traditionally quiet Christmas period happily seized on the improbable possibility that Morrison's American producer and tour manager, Gigi Lee, had given birth to their son.

Skeleton staffs in the most respected newspapers here and abroad fleshed out the juicy story further, adding their own observations on the alleged birth of the even more improbably-named George Ivan Morrison III.

Morrison, at the best of times a man of few words beyond those he sings, was variously described as being "overjoyed" by the arrival of the child, which his own website's bogus statement had suggested was the "spitting image of his daddy".

Reporters and their editors weren't the only ones to be duped.

Even the office of Morrison's Hollywood publicist, Phil Lobel, fell for the ruse, sending out its own email confirming the birth of Morrison's youngest man on the day the website birth announcement mysteriously appeared.

By New Year's Eve, however, Mr Lobel's office admitted that they, like everybody else, had been taken in, having based their initial statement on information from Morrison's hacked website. They regretted any confusion this may have caused.

The Lobel statement paled alongside the helpful intervention closer to home of Morrison's family friend, John Saunders, however.

A leading public relations adviser and head of Fleishman-Hilliard Europe, the effortlessly smooth Mr Saunders offered himself up for an exclusive interview on RTE Radio's News at One programme on New Year's Eve.

Hours before anyone in Los Angeles had even begun to wipe the sleep from their eyes, Saunders was shooting down the story of the birth of George Ivan Morrison III with considerable verve, describing it as "complete and utter fiction".

So ludicrous was it, in fact, that Saunders was able to tell RTE listeners how his friend, Van, had never even heard of the alleged mother of the alleged child, Ms Lee.

"Well, eh, none of it is true. And in fact when I spoke to Van a short while ago, I said like, 'do you even know this person?' And he's never heard the name at any stage in the past. He doesn't know who this person is," Mr Saunders said with the reassuring tone of a man firmly in the know.

Morrison's claimed ignorance of the very existence of Ms Lee served only to send the story in an altogether different direction.

A cursory examination of the credits attached to the singer's recent DVD release, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, revealed Ms Lee to be its executive producer.

Further checks by the Sunday Independent with the UK Companies Office show Ms Lee, a 42-year-old resident of Texas, as a co-director with Morrison of numerous of his music publishing and production companies, including Van Morrison Recordings (NI) Ltd.

And adding to the considerable intrigue was Ms Lee's appearance alongside Morrison himself in an interview with LA Weekly magazine in May of last year.

In the course of that interview, journalist Scott Foundas secured rare access, and describes sitting down for a conversation with the singer in his dressing room where Morrison is "cooling his heels (literally, in the case of a sore foot he has propped on a hassock) in the company of his tour executive producer, Gigi Lee". The interview took place during a break from rehearsals for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

In another interview last September, Ms Lee spoke to publicise the release of Entitled to Be Born Again, a 40-minute behind-the-scenes documentary being directed by Morrison himself, in which he chronicles his life and career in a series of interviews while rehearsing for his Astral Weeks tour.

She said: "Van tells his own story for the first time so people can hear the truth direct from the man himself rather than relying on the false planted stories of any tabloid.

"The film dispels all the books written by those who do not know him and never met him, who took upon themselves to tell the public tall tales. It dispels the pretenders and false friends quite well," she added.

Given the apparently obvious and close working relationship between Ms Lee and Morrison, it's little wonder that the singer's denial of any knowledge of her to his friend Mr Saunders set the tongues of gossip-mongers wagging even more furiously.

But as Mr Saunders remarked pointedly, "of all the things Van Morrison does with a great deal of genius, one thing he would probably admit himself that he doesn't do particularly well is public relations".

Notwithstanding the monumental clanger Mr Saunders himself had apparently just dropped on behalf of, and at the behest of, his friend Morrison, it was an accurate enough assessment when one considers the singer's PR form to date.

Notoriously wary of publicity, the legendary blues man simply doesn't engage with the media when it comes to the matter of his personal or family life.

Morrison is fairly protective of his privacy and that of Michelle Rocca Morrison, their four-year-old daughter Aibhe and two-year-old son Fionn Ivan Patrick.

Indeed, the public only become aware of Fionn's name after reading a report in this newspaper in which the details had been gleaned from a copy of the birth certificate, which was lodged several months after the birth, and in another county.

According to that document, Fionn's birth at 2:15pm on August 31, 2007, was registered in Bray, Co Wicklow, on November 28 of that year.

And while Michelle personally signed the certificate, Morrison's signature is recorded on the form in digital print only.

All of which only serves to add to the mystery surrounding the 'news' of the birth of George Ivan Morrison III.

Getting a clearer picture, even from the Morrisons' closest friends, as one might expect, presents its own difficulties.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent last week, one close friend of the former Miss Ireland gave an account of Ms Rocca's reaction to the bogus announcement of the birth on her husband's official website.

It was, apparently, a "terrible blow", coming as it had at Christmas and at the end of a year in which her brother, Patrick Rocca, had taken his own life.

"She is extremely upset about it. It couldn't have come at a worse time for her. It's the first Christmas for her and the rest of the family without Patrick. She was extremely close to him. They were birds of a feather. It's just awful for her and the children," the friend said.

Asked what Michelle and Van believed was the provenance of the fake announcement on the singer's website, the friend said there was a suspicion that someone close to Morrison with whom he had fallen out recently could be behind it.

In his interview on RTE Radio's News at One, Mr Saunders, for his part, made no mention of whom the singer suspected to be the culprit for what he noted was the second hacking incident to affect Morrison's website. However, he did make it clear that the singer and his wife had spent Christmas together as a family.

He said: "I have spoken to Van twice today, once within the last hour or so, and he has categorically denied knowing anything whatsoever about this, and what appears to have happened is that someone has hacked into his site.

"This is the second such happening within the last three months. There was another successful hacking of his website back in October, and this appears to have happened again.

"And the story that appeared on his website, and as you say has been carried in various media outlets throughout the world, is a complete and utter fiction. And he has absolutely reassured me of that, and I've spoken not only to Van but also to Michelle, and both of them told me that they enjoyed a lovely, quiet family Christmas together."

Commenting on the gravity of the story for the singer and his family, Mr Saunders added: "Given the seriousness of this, he has made this [clarifying] statement today and he's emphatic that this story is completely and utterly without foundation.

"And, as I say, they as a family were all together over Christmas."

Visits by the Sunday Independent to the Morrisons' family home on the exclusive Sorrento Road in Killiney last week proved to be of no avail.

Efforts to contact Ms Lee -- the manager, producer and co-director whom Van Morrison claims not to know -- were also unsuccessful. Phone calls by the Sunday Independent to her home phone number in Texas went unanswered.

Morrison himself is unlikely to add anything further to clear up the confusion, given his lifelong aversion to publicity, be it good, bad or indifferent.

Such is the Belfast singer's disdain for the press a mythology of sorts has grown up around it as hardened hacks endeavour to explain away the reasons why they never got the exclusive Morrison 'tell- all' interview.

The truth, if it was possible to tell it, is probably far simpler.

Morrison may have just never learned to deal with the endless fascination of an adoring public and a press that is paid to inquire into the person behind the phenomenon.

Indeed, the only time this reporter ever came close to an encounter with the reclusive singer was on European election day in 2004.

While working for another newspaper, and having learned that Morrison and his friend and Killiney neighbour, U2 lead singer Bono, were enjoying a drink in the Herbert Park Hotel in Ballsbridge, I was dispatched to meet with a photographer who was already on the scene snatching pictures of the two great men through the windows of the hotel lobby.

Arriving at the hotel, I was more than a little bemused to see Morrison in the plaza outside hotly pursuing our photographer into the park itself, protesting loudly at the intrusion into his privacy and demanding he come back to receive a proper piece of his mind.

Bono, meanwhile, appeared to take it all in his stride as he sat on the edge of a pot plant at the hotel door, signing autographs for fans who couldn't believe their luck.

Thinking about it now, perhaps Morrison should have called on Bono when looking for advice on what to do about the furore that has blown up over the past week. The U2 man might have told Morrison that straight from the horse's mouth is always best.

Barry Egan on the Van and Michelle he knows

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News