After seven years as a journalist, there’s not a lot that can shock me. The twists and turns of a juicy celebrity gossip story, or a genuinely earth-shattering political scandal. But after years spent reporting on women’s rights, stalking, and violence against women and girls, I’d felt, somewhat naively, that I’d seen it all. How wrong I was.
When I stumbled across the Matthew Hardy story earlier in this year, it felt like entering a world that grew more baffling with every step I took, like the haunted forest in a fairy tale. Hardy is believed by police to be one of the UK’s most prolific-ever cyber stalkers, and uncovering his crimes — which stretched back over a decade, to 63 alleged victims, all over the country — made for a complicated and sometimes mind-blowing exercise. Because Hardy took on some of his victims’ identities, piecing together who said what to who wasn’t always easy, so complicated was his web of lies and deception.
His stalking was, at times, truly terrifying. Dozens of phone calls to his victims, breathing down the line, in the middle of the night. Trying to break up their relationships. Some of his victims have told me of Hardy spreading false rumours that incest was ongoing within their families. On one occasion, according to the police officer who investigated Hardy for his crimes, he nearly broke up a wedding with his lies.
And it went on for such a long time: 11 years, from start to finish. Speaking to his victims, I’d ask myself: how would I cope, if someone targeted me in this way? Would I end up on antidepressants, like them, too fearful to leave the house? Or worse? It was hard not to put myself in their shoes.
I explore the impact of Hardy’s stalking — and what motivated him to target so many women, for so many years — in my upcoming Guardian 6-part podcast series, Can I Tell You A Secret? But the story gets more thorny and tangled the more I delve into it, just like that proverbial fairy tale forest. Because I wanted to shine a light on Hardy, the stalker who hid in the darkness, targeting women from behind a veil of online anonymity. He’s the man who received what is currently believed by police to be the longest prison sentence ever handed out in a UK court to a cyberstalker. (He plans to appeal that sentence.)
But what I found when I turned on that spotlight was that, unlike in a fairy tale, where morality is black and white, Hardy’s story is shades of grey. Why Hardy did what he did — and the factors that might have influenced his offending — well, it was complicated. Some even think he may have been a victim, at least in part, too.
More than anything, I’ve learned that it’s never good to think you’ve seen it all. Because every once in a while, a story comes along that knocks you off your feet.
Can I Tell You A Secret? is a Guardian investigative podcast. Listen wherever you get your podcasts now.