Metgate: What the hacks think

What broadsheet journalists think about the phone hacking scandal is clear enough. Read my newspaper, the Observer, the Guardian or the New York Times and you will see that we believe that the News of the World has been engaged in widespread criminality, which a scared Scotland Yard has failed to investigate properly. (For an explanation of why it is criminal read this piece by the campaigning solicitor David Allen Green, who to my mind is one of the best bloggers in Britain.) The conviction of Clive Goodman, the News of the World‘s Royal Correspondent, and Glen Mulcaire, the private investigator, who hacked messages for him, ought to be the start of a longer criminal process. Thousands of people’s phones were hacked, we suspect, and Andy Coulson, the News of the World’s editor, and now aide to that nice David Cameron, knew what was going on.

Now, Coulson must have known what Goodman was doing because he signed off the expenses. (If he did not, then he was a remarkably stupid editor.) But finding out what his former colleagues think of him is a hard task.

The pack has a code of silence. “We may work for rival papers but we will never dish the dirt on each other.” I remember on a job in Ireland meeting the gang and being told bluntly and repeatedly that what happens on tour stays on tour. Telltales from snobbish liberal broadsheets were not welcome.

I asked one of the best tabloid hacks I know what he thought of the Netgate scandal. Speaking on condition of anonymity he replied.

It’s shite. The thousands of numbers that were claimed were in ‘records’ kept by Mulcaire and Goodman, are also known to you and me as ‘contact books’. I have thousands of celeb and well-known people’s numbers, home addresses, dates of birth and postcodes. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to steal David Cameron’s identity or hack Kerry Katona’s voicemail, and a lot of them are 10 years old.

Intercepting voicemails was not illegal until recently. Even after the law changed, it took a couple of years for the Information Commissioner to write to all the editors and be stern with them, “at which point everyone I know who indulged in it (and there was usually only one or two on every paper) got themselves a pay as you go and started being extra careful. At the same time circulations nosedived, because getting story tips stopped being the price of a phone call, and there were less and less celeb shagging tales.”

He remains astonished by the innocence of celebs. Their PRs were telling them to cut out the hacks by the simple expedient of putting a pin code on their voicemails. He’s pretty sure that Jamie Lowther Pinkington, PR for the royals, told princes William and Harry to do just that. If he did, they ignored him until the scandal broke. After which…

Everyone got more careful. The outside agencies that did a lot of the work disbanded (officially) and ceased trading. They didn’t really need to carry on anyway, cos they’d already earned so much for years. Phone hacking doesn’t go on any more much – it’s so obvious when it does, and Goodman meant no-one wants to get caught. Various dark arts do continue, but more likely only in very extreme and rare cases. Ones in which the execs feel they could legitimately claim a cast-iron public interest.

Like most journalists, he had a lot of sympathy for Goodman.

It’s a measure of the atmosphere at the Screws that Clive felt compelled to take such risks in order to keep hold of his job. A younger reporter had just been brought in to cover the Royal beat with him, and Clive had a new baby and a mortgage. I’ve never met him but am friends with his friends and they say he’s a decent sort.

Everyone at the Screws – everyone in Fleet Street – knew that kind of thing went on. They weren’t all involved, but the top brass who signed off the payments knew what they were for. Goodman was a bit of a patsy, and a bit silly, but took the fall for the bosses. As ever, it’s the grunts on the front line who take the bullets while the generals retreat. Clive was handsomely rewarded for his loyalty.

Journalists break the law constantly. If a civil servant gives me information Whitehall does not want released, he and I are breaking the Official Secrets Act. But we have a public interest defence. Not in law, but in our ability to turn to a British jury (may God bless and protect them) and say we exposed wrong doing now please let us off. I would hack a phone if the cause was a good one. The Screws’ trouble is that there is no public interest defence for what it did. Or as my friend put it “I’d hack tomorrow and happily admit it if it was to expose a scandal or bring down a public figure. I wouldn’t think it worth it for a page lead on Prince Harry singing a song to his brother.”

My friend thinks the “scandal” is a silly season stunt. But his account is a little more interesting than he lets on. Note how much private detectives made, and note too how many journalists were hacking. Then we have the minor point that virtually everyone in Fleet Street refuses to believe the prime minister’s press secretary’s denials.

The New York Times’ investigation corroborated my friend’s account of Coulson’s newsroom.

Andy Coulson, the top editor at the time, had imposed a hypercompetitive ethos, even by tabloid standards. One former reporter called it a “do whatever it takes” mentality. The reporter was one of two people who said Coulson was present during discussions about phone hacking. Coulson ultimately resigned but denied any knowledge of hacking.

As you can see it found journalists who would talk off the record like my friend, but only one who would dish the dirt properly.

Sean Hoare, a former reporter and onetime close friend of Coulson’s, also recalled discussing hacking. The two men first worked together at The Sun, where, Hoare said, he played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson. At the News of the World, Hoare said he continued to inform Coulson of his pursuits. Coulson “actively encouraged me to do it,” Hoare said.

Hoare said he was fired during a period when he was struggling with drugs and alcohol. He said he was now revealing his own use of the dark arts – which included breaking into the messages of celebrities like David and Victoria Beckham – because it was unfair for the paper to pin the blame solely on Goodman. Coulson declined to comment for this article but has maintained that he was unaware of the hacking.

Is that enough for a CPS to mount a case? If it is not, the pack’s omerta leads me to suspect that there will never be enough evidence for further prosecutions.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search