The same old story

This tale of a twin towers fraudster is a fascinating one, but it's been told before


An observation: television journalists can be pretty snotty about print journalists. I've no idea why, because a lot of television journalism wouldn't make it past the spike on a decent newspaper.

Take Cutting Edge: the 9/11 Faker (Thursday 11 September, 9pm), which was about Tania Head, who claimed to have been on the 78th floor of the South Tower during the attacks on the New York World Trade Center when, in fact, she had been in Barcelona at the time (for added piquancy, she also invented an imaginary fiancé who died in the inferno of the North Tower). Head is a fantastic subject for a film, but her story has been told before, in some detail, by the New York Times, the newspaper that discovered her fraud.

So, it would be fair to expect a documentary to take the story on in some way, and I was hoping for real news of Ms Head, who has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth since the truth about her broke in September last year. I want to know where she is living, and how she is surviving. I want to know if she feels guilty. Most of all, I want to know why she did what she did. But oh, silly me. Head declined to be interviewed for this film, and so did her family. What we got was basically the New York Times story, beefed up with an oh-so-ponderous-and-spooky narration by the actor Mark Strong.

Ah, well. I do love a good fraud and, in the end, I was still happy to suck up whatever crumbs were on offer. Cutting Edge did at least have some of the many emails that Head wrote as president of the World Trade Center Survivors' Network, and they were delicious. First, there was her can-do attitude as she fought both for government money for the group, and for the members to be allowed to make a private visit to the Ground Zero pit. Then, her increasingly emotional accounts of her loss, epistles encouraged by the writing workshops she also organised for the WTCSN.

You have to say that Head had an eye for emotive detail; in another life, she would surely have been working on the Daily Mail's Femail section. Who would not have been moved by the round-robin she wrote on the day she finally donated her (fictional) wedding dress to charity? Finally, there was her jarring triumph after her appearance on the TV news, when she was filmed showing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani around the Ground Zero Tribute Centre. The members of WTCSN interviewed here spoke more in sorrow than in anger, and you can understand why; when you've watched bodies fall from the sky, a fantasist's lies can't hurt you much.

Still, it was interesting to hear them explain the hierarchies of suffering that built up in the group in the years after the attacks. People always remark (it's the great cliché) how resilient human beings are, and here was the proof. I cherished hearing about these hierarchies, and the slight bitchinesses of the group - "I thought she was pretty pompous!" said one woman - for the simple reason that they spoke so strongly of recovery.

Jeff and Alison Crowther had a son, Welles, who also died in the South Tower, and whom Head claimed had saved her life. Jeff wanted to know why Head had befriended his family; why she had woven her story so elaborately, and over so long a period (it took five years for her to be unmasked). No other explanation was forthcoming, but he had his own theory, and was happy to expound it.

"Don't tap me on the leg, dear, I'm going with this," he said, as his wife tried delicately to rein him in. To sum up, he thought Head had self-esteem issues: she was fat. In fact, Head turns out to be from a prominent Spanish family and to have a brother and father who perpetrated a ?24m fraud a decade ago. In February 2008, an email from a Spanish account arrived in the in-boxes of the WTCSN's 500 members, claiming that Tania Head had committed suicide. No one knows who it was from, but wouldn't it be good if a truly tenacious journalist - one of my lowlife newspaper colleagues, perhaps - now followed it up?

Pick of the week

Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Starts 14 September, 9pm, BBC1
One nice girl and one rogue add up to tragedy in Wessex.

What to Eat Now
15 September, 8.30pm, BBC2
Another day, another chef. This one's a rugged type called Valentine.

The Family
Starts 17 September, 9pm, Channel 4
Paul Watson's original fly-on-the-wall doc revisited.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran