Miracle on Fleet Street

Martin Hickman on the tabloids and how they got away with it

On 11 December, the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, announced that all outstanding cases against Mirror Group journalists for phone hacking would be dropped, and that no corporate case would be brought against Rupert Murdoch’s News UK for hacking or perverting the course of justice. It was Christmas come early on Fleet Street, but that isn’t the way the papers chose to tell it. ‘For the past few years,’ the Daily Telegraph complained, ‘the left has tried to use the law politically to discredit those who happen to disagree with it. This has cost the taxpayers a great sum of money, hurt innocent people and undermined public faith in Britain’s institutions. An unfettered press is essential to democracy.’ The Sun asked who would accept blame for spending £50 million (its figure) on ‘the politically motivated and fruitless war on the tabloid press … It all boiled down to this: an establishment reeling from its repeated exposure by Britain’s “feral” press seized a thin chance to muzzle us.’

The papers didn’t, however, talk about the way the two major police investigations – Weeting, into phone hacking, and Elveden, into inappropriate payments to police – had come about, what they had revealed about what had been going on at the national redtops, or the fact that dozens of police officers and other officials who supplied information to them had admitted criminal offences. Journalists paid between £250 and £5000 a time to police officers, prison guards, health service workers, civil servants and other public officials in return for tip-offs, copies of records and photographs taken in the course of their duties. At least a dozen officers from four different police forces were taking bribes, including two in the Metropolitan Police’s SO15 counterterrorism unit. Some of the stories obtained this way were trivial, though intrusive: George Michael wept in his jail cell, for example, or a male British Airways worker secretly wore high heels. Others were more serious: security lapses at Heathrow, or equipment shortages in Afghanistan. Almost anything could be obtained if the offer was big enough: in one instance a journalist bought the statements made in the course of a rape inquiry; in another, police mugshots of arrested suspects.

At one stage, 52 detectives were working on Operation Elveden. By November 2015, they had arrested more than sixty public officials, and in some cases their partners, on suspicion of having received payments or laundered them through their bank accounts. They had also arrested or charged 34 national newspaper journalists with approving or making the payments. When their cases reached court, jurors had to decide where the line should be drawn between bribery and whistleblowing. In the absence of a written constitution or settlement concerning the fourth estate, members of the public would set the limits of legitimate journalistic inquiry. If the Daily Telegraph is thought to have done the right thing in buying a stolen disc of MPs’ expenses, why shouldn’t the Sun pay a public servant for the information that a TV presenter has been arrested for assault, or that a prisoner has a 26-inch TV in his cell? Would it be any more or any less improper to pay someone for handing over a photograph of Prince William wearing a bikini?

The court cases were scarcely covered by the Fleet Street newspapers, save to complain that they were taking place at all (the Daily Mail described Elveden as ‘a disgraceful attempt by police and prosecutors to intimidate whistleblowers and deny the public their right to know’). Media commentators sympathised with the arrested journalists: the officials had their snouts in the trough. But despite the insistence of the police that none of the payments was justified and the redtops’ response that they all were, there are no moral certainties here. Each informant, each transaction, was motivated by a different balance between public-spiritedness and greed; each publication, each story, by a different conception of public interest.

Celebrities had known about newspapers’ payments to public servants for years. In 2011, Jude Law told the Observer he no longer told the police when he was being stalked ‘because having done it in the past I knew that those stories would then end up being leaked’. Hugh Grant said it became clear to him and other people in the public eye in the mid-1990s that ‘if you had a burglary, or you got mugged or your car was broken into, you had to think really hard about whether you were going to call the police because the first person that came round was always a pap or a journalist – not a policeman.’[*]

‘We have paid the police for information in the past,’ Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the Sun, told the Commons select committee for culture, media and sport in March 2003. (Piers Morgan, at the time editor of the Daily Mirror, privately chided Brooks for ‘dropping the tabloid baton’.) The MP Chris Bryant protested that paying police was illegal. Andy Coulson, then editor of the News of the World, quickly stepped in, insisting that they operated ‘within the law’. The police didn’t follow up on Brooks’s remark; for much of the 2000s, the Met was on friendly terms with Murdoch’s News International, which owned the Sun and News of the World.

That changed abruptly in 2011 when the cover-up of phone hacking at the News of the World collapsed. On 20 June, a few months after Coulson resigned as David Cameron’s director of communications, News International handed detectives emails between Coulson and the News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, proposing paying the police officers who guarded the queen. Quietly, Scotland Yard joined Operation Elveden up with Operation Weeting, the phone hacking investigation, and Operation Tuleta, an investigation into the hacking of computers. Brooks, who was by now running News International, resigned in July.

Murdoch’s lawyers were worried that the spiralling police inquiries in London might damage his News Corp business in the US, where his holdings included the Fox TV network. He and his fellow directors stood to be prosecuted in the UK under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and in the US under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Having covered up its activities for years, News Corp reached for the disinfectant and hired the City law firm Linklaters. With their help, a News International unit, the Management and Standards Committee (MSC), began trawling through emails, expense claims and records of payments going back years at its surviving newspapers: the Sun, Times and Sunday Times. In October and November 2011, the MSC broke the cardinal rule of journalism and gave the Met details of Sun sources who may have been public officials. For years News International had blocked inquiries into hacking at the News of the World; now it was volunteering evidence about corruption at the Sun, which hadn’t even been under investigation.

Among the first officials to be arrested were Richard Trunkfield, a prison officer who had sold details about James Bulger’s killer Jon Venables; Alan Tierney, a Surrey police constable who was paid £1250 for passing information that John Terry’s mother had been cautioned for shoplifting, and Ronnie Wood for assaulting his girlfriend; and Tracy Bell, a pharmacy assistant at Sandhurst, who had sold five stories about Princes William and Harry in 2005 and 2006 for around £1000.

The arrests of journalists began on 4 November 2011 with Jamie Pyatt, a prolific reporter for the Sun. On 28 January 2012, detectives arrested the Sun’s executive editor, Fergus Shanahan, its managing editor, Graham Dudman, and assistant editor Chris Pharo. A fortnight later, they arrested the deputy editor, deputy news editor, picture editor, chief foreign correspondent and chief reporter. In March, the defence editor was arrested and, in April, the royal editor. Apart from the editor, Dominic Mohan, by May 2012 almost every Sun news executive had been arrested.

Police discovered that officials had been paid by other newspapers – the inquiry was extended to include Express Newspapers and Trinity Mirror – but the focus remained on News International. It had been working on the assumption that if it co-operated with police it would escape a corporate prosecution, but by early 2012 the net was tightening on the people at the top. Records indicated that Brooks, while editor of the Sun, had approved payments amounting to tens of thousands of pounds to a military source who turned out to be a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Defence. In April 2012, News International challenged the police to say whether it was itself under investigation by Elveden. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers formally confirmed that it was. The MSC halted its co-operation and released information only when police obtained a court order.

On 6 March 2013, in Wapping, Murdoch met the arrested Sun journalists, who had been on police bail for a year. One of the journalists taped the meeting, and a transcript appeared on the website of the news agency Exaro (I worked on the story). In April 2012 Murdoch had told the Leveson Inquiry that ‘paying police officers for information is wrong.’ At the meeting in Wapping, he told the arrested staffers: ‘We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely. You didn’t instigate it.’ The company had handed over its emails in a ‘panic’, he said: ‘We might have gone too far in protecting ourselves.’

Murdoch’s second thoughts came too late. The emails and records had been harvested and the cases prepared. The prosecutors had more than enough evidence to convict many of the public officials, but were struggling on the Sun’s side of the transactions. The 2010 Bribery Act had made it a crime to offer, promise or give a financial advantage to someone to induce them to perform their role improperly, but it only came into force in July 2011, by which time most payments to public officials had ended. The prosecutors turned instead to the 13th-century common law offence of misconduct in public office. A guilty verdict on this charge could be reached only after a series of tests had been met. The public officer must be passing on information gained in that capacity (rather than, say, leaking something they’d overheard at a neighbour’s barbecue); they must be acting against their duty knowing that the misconduct amounted ‘to an abuse of the public’s trust’; and the offence must be carried out ‘without reasonable excuse or justification’ – a de facto public interest test. To have conspired in the misconduct, a journalist had to know, or be in a position where they should have known, that the official’s actions met all these criteria. Knowing the official was breaking their terms of employment wasn’t enough: the journalist had to know the conduct was criminal.

The picture was complex, and responsibility hard to pin down. Reporters who wanted cash for their sources made requests to news editors, who passed the requests on to editors and their deputies, who made the final authorisation. Some reporters were paying more than one official, and several editors were signing off cash for many sources. Coulson and Brooks were also facing phone hacking charges. The prosecutors had to sort this tangle into cases of manageable size and duration. Juries trying journalists couldn’t be told whether, or which, public officials had pleaded guilty to misconduct.

The first big Elveden trial began at the Old Bailey in October 2013. Commonly known as the ‘phone hacking trial’, it put Coulson, Brooks and Goodman in the dock for the alleged corruption of public officials. Jurors were shown the emails that started Elveden. In January 2003 Goodman asked Coulson for £1000 in cash to buy a royal phonebook from ‘one of our royal policemen’, and in May 2005 for money for another directory that was ‘risky’ for his cop to steal. Goodman had told Coulson he was paying a policeman, his editor had agreed to pay, the payments had been made, and the directories had been found at Goodman’s house. The problem was that Scotland Yard, investigating five years later, hadn’t been able to turn up the corrupt policeman. Goodman testified that he had bought the directories from two journalists whose identities he had to protect – he nicknamed them Anderson and Farish. Coulson claimed he couldn’t remember any of the emails, but said he didn’t believe that Goodman had actually been paying the police. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict.

In Brooks’s case, the police had caught a corrupt official. Between 2004 and 2012, Bettina Jordan-Barber, a Ministry of Defence official, provided the Sun with tip-offs or confirmations on 69 defence stories. Chief reporter John Kay ran splash after splash based on her information, among them news of the death of Major Alexis Roberts, a tutor of Prince William at Sandhurst, in 2002; an army witness testified that Roberts’s name had been leaked before his family were ready for the information to be released. In 2010, a front-page story exposing the army’s failings in Afghanistan – ‘Army bomb chief: I quit … Fears over “Hurt Locker” cutbacks’ – came from Jordan-Barber, not, as implied at the time, from the bomb chief concerned.

Kay emailed Brooks on 11 occasions for cash for his ‘number one military contact’. Brooks testified she had no idea the source was a public official: Kay could have been getting his stories from retired soldiers, their families, defence journalists, almost anyone. Worried, perhaps, that some of the jurors might remember her comments to Parliament in 2003, Brooks said payments to public officials could be justified if there was ‘overwhelming public interest’. Her QC, Jonathan Laidlaw, took her through each story, asking whether, had she known the source was a public official, she would have sanctioned payment. It was a masterstroke: the exercise stressed which stories were in the public interest and which weren’t, but the overall effect was to depict Brooks as a discerning editor. She was found not guilty on all charges. At his trial a year later, Kay maintained that all of Jordan-Barber’s stories were in the public interest. He, too, was acquitted, along with two of Brooks’s executives, Fergus Shanahan and Geoff Webster, who signed off the payments. Jurors returned further not guilty verdicts on the royal editor Duncan Larcombe and his ‘eyes and ears’ at Sandhurst, Sergeant John Hardy, who received £23,700 between 2006 and 2008, including £5000 for a photo (it has never appeared) of Prince William wearing a bikini under a shirt at a fancy dress party. Jordan-Barber wasn’t so fortunate: after pleading guilty, she was jailed for a year.

Most of the Sun’s sources, faced with payment records and phone data detailing their contact with journalists, pleaded guilty. PC Paul Flattley, who was stationed in Kensington and Chelsea, received a total of £7500 for 39 tips: he told the paper about the theft of a handbag from Zara Phillips, and about Hans Rausing’s failure to stop after a traffic accident. Flattley’s handler, the Sun’s defence editor, Virginia Wheeler, made no secret of her source when she asked the paper’s news editors for cash. ‘Please could I get a £500 cash payment for my Chelsea copper contact for the female murder story the other week?’ she asked the head of news, Chris Pharo, by email on 10 November 2009. ‘I’m going to meet him for a coffee over the road this week and he’s a really sharp contact.’ There was no record of Pharo’s reply, but the £500 was paid. Flattley was jailed for two years; Wheeler, suffering from mental strain, was too ill to stand trial.

The rest of the journalists fought their cases in the courts. Occasionally they lost. In November 2014 Lucy Panton, the News of the World’s crime editor, was convicted of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. She had bought two stories from a prison officer, Scott Chapman, who had made a total of £40,000 selling stories to all the national redtops (the Sun, News of the World, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday). A juror passed a note to the judge saying the jury room had become ‘aggressive’ and the atmosphere ‘horrible’. ‘You claim to have been acting conscientiously in the public interest,’ the judge, Charles Wide, told her, sentencing Panton to a six-month suspended jail term. ‘I do not accept that.’

Panton’s conviction was quashed a few months later in the Court of Appeal, which ruled that Wide had misdirected the jury by failing to stress that for misconduct to be criminal it must be serious enough to call for ‘condemnation or punishment’. Harm to the public interest, the court said, should be ‘the major determinant’ of whether a payment to a public official amounted to a crime. This was one of several setbacks suffered by the Crown. Clodagh Hartley, the Sun’s Whitehall editor, was acquitted over her dealings with Jonathan Hall, an HM Revenue & Customs press officer. Hall, who worked on the law enforcement desk, earned £17,475 over three years for leaking, among other things, the 2010 budget the night before it was delivered to the House of Commons, and the details of a £1.3 million TV ad campaign for the DirectGov website starring Kelly Brook. Hartley argued she was trying to reveal the reality beneath the political spin. The Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade gave evidence for her, telling jurors that political journalism depended on leaks. Some sources wanted payment, he wrote later: ‘No sources. No leaks. No stories. And who is the loser? … The public, the readers, who fail to know what is being done to them or in their name.’ Hartley avoided jail; Hall was ordered to do two hundred hours of unpaid work and pay £535 in costs.

*

The Crown had high hopes of a conviction in the trial of six Sun journalists at Kingston Crown Court, from October 2014 to January 2015. The journalists were deft in the witness box, bemused as to why they were there, angry at times, staring straight at the jury, explaining that they were doing their best under unrelenting pressure. They gave a rougher picture of Brooks than the thoughtful, demure presence she had presented in the witness box. Chris Pharo testified that she humiliated her underlings; he recalled all senior staff receiving a text message from her after the Sun had been scooped on a story by the News of the World: ‘If you fucking cunts aren’t capable of matching them, I’ll sack the lot of you and replace you with them.’ On another occasion she had scrunched a news list into a ball and hurled it at him, screaming and slamming the door on the morning editorial conference.

In 2004 alone, the Sun paid sources at least £362,000 in cash; Graham Dudman, then managing editor, kept £25,000 in his safe. Asked how much went to public officials, Dudman replied: ‘I just don’t know.’ One of the defendants, Jamie Pyatt, who had eight hundred stories a year published in the Sun, paid a member of the Household Cavalry to monitor the movements of Prince Harry in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. He had several contacts at Broadmoor, including an orderly, Robert Neave (‘Tipster Bob’), whom he paid £9000 to supply him with news about the Yorkshire Ripper and other killers. The investigation had found an email suggesting that Pyatt paid a Thames Valley police officer – never traced – £1500 for a tale about a couple caught having sex outside Windsor Castle; he certainly paid a Surrey policeman, Simon Quinn, £10,000 for inside information on investigations into celebrities and serious crimes. Among the material Quinn supplied were three witness statements in a rape inquiry, along with the name of the complainant. A few days into the rape trial, Pyatt visited the victim at her home. She recalled in her witness statement:

When I answered the door there was a bald man wearing a dark grey suit and a pink tie. I think he was in his early forties. He was carrying a fat satchel. He was trying to be sympathetically nice. He tried to put a card in my hand. I kept saying ‘no thank you’. He also said he could give me some money and the kids could be taken on a nice holiday. It was obvious he was a reporter. The business card was headed ‘The Sun’.

Pyatt defended his behaviour by saying that although Quinn may have been breaking his terms of employment, Pyatt was not breaking his. All his stories were accurate, followed the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct and were in the public interest – and his bosses had known what he was doing.

In his closing remarks, the prosecutor, Peter Wright, picked out something said by another of the defendants, Ben O’Driscoll, who had been a deputy news editor at the Sun. In 2010, Virginia Wheeler’s ‘Chelsea Copper’ had told her that a singer’s sister had been impaled on railings. ‘She’s really pretty too,’ O’Driscoll said in an email to Wheeler: ‘Great tale.’ This, Wright argued, revealed the attitude at the heart of the case:

A casual use of corruption to feed an insatiable hunger for splashes and exclusives involving anything newsworthy; the casualties of terrible accidents such as Mika’s sister’s; the casualties of terrible crimes and their families; the morbid, the humorous, the mundane, the outrageous, the truly gripping, the macabre, the heart-rending, the tragic, the spectacular, the disturbing. Everything had a price – the ends justified the means … provided it was a ‘great tale’.

Again, there were fierce disputes in the jury room; a juror who confided he was on the verge of a breakdown was discharged. The jury acquitted two of the journalists, partly cleared Dudman and O’Driscoll, and were hung on the charges against Pharo and Pyatt.

Humbled by its failure to secure convictions, in April 2015 the Crown Prosecution Service dropped its proceedings against nine journalists, including Coulson, Goodman, O’Driscoll and Dudman. Alison Saunders said that the trials of three other journalists would go ahead. In May, the Sun crime reporter Anthony France was convicted for paying a Heathrow counterterrorism officer, Timothy Edwards, a total of £22,000 for 38 stories. ‘If you were a victim of crime,’ the prosecutor, Zoe Johnson, asked the jurors, ‘would you expect a police officer to sell your name and address to the Sun?’ The judge, Timothy Pontius, described France as ‘a decent man’. Handing down an 18-month suspended sentence, he said articles about drunken airline pilots and drug smuggling were ‘very much in the public interest’; but others had been plainly chosen ‘for their obviously salacious subject matter’.

In October, Pyatt and Pharo were retried for aiding and abetting the misconduct of Simon Quinn. Jurors weren’t told that Quinn had pleaded guilty, or that Pyatt had paid ‘Tipster Bob’ (later jailed for eight months) or any other official. The judge (Wide again) stressed to jurors that proof of misconduct had to clear a very high bar, and asked them to consider ‘the benefit to the public, or a section of the public, of the free flow of information’. After three days, Pyatt and Pharo were unanimously acquitted.

The Sun was triumphant. The ‘not guilty’ verdicts on Pyatt and Pharo marked ‘the end of a costly and vindictive vendetta by an unholy alliance of politicians, police and prosecutors’, Trevor Kavanagh, its political commentator, wrote. ‘This was a blatant travesty of justice from start to finish, driven by the hatred of the Labour left towards its critics – especially this newspaper.’ Graham Johnson, a veteran of the Daily Mirror and News of the World, took a different view:

When you’re a tabloid journalist … you’re going to ruin people’s lives and you’re going to behave in a very bad way. And you do. But when you start being pulled up for it you can’t cry about it, you’ve got to take it. And they didn’t – they started crying about it and getting their mates in the Sun, like Trevor Kavanagh, to write fucking daft pieces in the paper saying how hard a time they’re having.

Operation Elveden has cost £13 million. According to the Metropolitan Police, it has ‘dealt with’ 67 public officials. It has resulted in 32 guilty pleas or convictions. In 28 cases the defendants were officials, at least 21 of whom were jailed. Some of the stories for which journalists paid public servants were in the public interest; many would fall into the less impressive category of stories which merely interested the public. Some would have come out anyway: what newspapers were really buying was exclusivity. Are journalists bribing public servants now? It is difficult to say – this is covert behaviour in a closed world – but it would be surprising if they were. With an ongoing row over regulation, newspapers are less inclined than they once were to bung their way to a scoop. There is another reason too: reporters who break the law without good cause now know that they and their sources could be hung out to dry by their employers. That is a story unlikely to make the front page of any tabloid newspaper.

[*] See also Alan Bennett’s diary in the LRB of 16 December 2010.