The Sunday Times and David Hunt: we still need big media

Exposing big wrongs is expensive.

News Corp has gone to great lengths to draw a line under the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

News International is no more, rebranded as News UK. There are hardly any top executives from 2011 still in place at News UK. The News of the World itself has gone. And most recently we have the decision to leave Wapping – the scene of riots in 1986 and nefarious journalistic practices more recently - and move The Sun, Times and Sunday Times into a brand-new glass-clad office in London Bridge.

But for me the best answer News UK can have for its critics is to support more journalism like the courageous exposure of gangster David Hunt by the Sunday Times.

The initial 23 May 2010 piece by Michael Gillard alleged that Hunt was the head of a criminal network “so vast that Scotland Yard regards him as "too big" to take on”.

Defending the libel action launched by millionaire "legitimate businessman" Hunt took three years. If the Sunday Times had lost at trial, costs would have run into the millions and damages would have been £250,000.

The original story was largely based on leaked Serious and Organised Crime Agency and police documents.

In order to prove the claimed meaning of its article, that Hunt was “a ‘crime lord’ who controlled a vast criminal network, involved in murder, drug trafficking and fraud” the Sunday Times had to rely on those documents.

The paper decided to contact the Met before disclosing any leaked documents in its defence.

You would think the Met would be delighted that a figure who has eluded it for decades might at least face some justice at the High Court. But the Met’s response was to sue the Sunday Times for recovery of the documents and an order banning their publication.

It also launched a huge internal mole hunt for the source of the leak.

The Sunday Times eventually won this secondary legal battle in November 2011, when it was allowed to make use of redacted versions of the leaked documents in its defence.

The libel trial itself took place over three weeks in May this year. Giving evidence against Hunt has been a dangerous thing to do in the past, so the Sunday Times employed five expensive professional security guards to protect its witnesses.

On the second day of the trial they walked out, the paper reported, after being approached in a pub. Another security firm refused to take the job on.

The Sunday Times’ ultimate victory over Hunt no doubt had much do with the professionalism and diligence of reporter Michael Gillard.

His cross-examination by Hunt’s lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC (chairman of Hacked Off no less) bears repetition, as he sums up an investigation into the activities of Hunt which went back 11 years.

Tomlinson:

As a responsible journalist, the best you can say is ‘A lot of police officers have made serious allegations against Mr Hunt of criminality’, is it not?

Gillard:

No, that’s not the best I could say. I could say a lot better than that.

What I’d say is this; that, when I look at 11 years of looking at Mr Hunt and his development within the criminal hierarchy, I am looking at the huge expenditure of the Metropolitan Police: Different squads, unrelated squads with  individuals who don’t know each other, with senior  management who don’t know each other, who are in different  areas, some of them, who have sustained police operations of  surveillance, bugging, very expensive, very time consuming,  and then I look at the fact that, over that 11 year period, the net  result may not be that Mr Hunt has been arrested for the three  offences that you have talked about, murder, drug trafficking.

However, I consider that the Serious Organised Crime Group  then take over that investigation away from the [Metropolitan Police], because, as a report I saw commented, the Met found the Hunts to be "‘too big for them".

Tomlinson:

But you know ...                                                                                                                                                           .

Gillard:

Sorry, if I may finish? Therefore, the fact that the Serious  Organised Crime Agency is conducting an operation from 2006  into this individual and his - to quote a report I saw - family  based organised crime group and gives very, very hard detail of what they’re looking at (detail I can’t refer to), I think, as a responsible journalist, I am entitled to take the view that it can’t be right that all these officers and all these senior managers and all those who are responsible for releasing the public money have all conspired somehow to target Mr Hunt, because they don’t believe there is anything in it...

The information I had at the time was an analysis of his financial accounts, evidence of his relationship with a known money launderer, the use of offshore companies, a history of violence, access to firearms; all these are evidence of organised crime activity. Then I have the documents from official sources, documents that aren’t disputed as to their authenticity, that detail, crushing detail, of the level of surveillance and operations targeting Mr Hunt and his organised crime group.

When I put all this together, I take the view that there is truth in the allegation that he is the head of an organised crime group.

After winning its libel case, The Sunday Times was able to publish further revelations based on the leaked documents stating that "using a ‘network’ of corrupt serving and former officers Hunt is alleged to have located and then intimidated a man into not giving evidence against him even though he was a police-protected witness”.

The Sunday Times journalists investigating Hunt may have put their own safety at risk.

In March 1992 Peter Wilson decided to investigate for the Sunday Mirror Hunt’s involvement in the unsolved murders of Maxine Arnold and Terry Gooderham, acting on a tip-off from a police source.

He doorstepped Hunt at his Epping home and, finding he was not in, told Hunt's wife what he wanted to speak to him about.

Wilson returned later in the day and explained in a witness statement what happened next:

This time I noticed the claimant himself, walking quickly up  the path from his house in a determined and aggressive manner.  He looked furious. I instinctively backed-off a few steps; and  without saying a single word or pausing, he grabbed me by the  lapels and violently head-butted me just above my right eye. I offered no resistance at all. He then said to me, ‘You fucking cunt. I’ll up you, talking to my wife about fucking murder." I  remember these words clearly ... I staggered back in pain and  shock and made my way to the car.

Wilson suffered a fractured orbital bone in his eye socket. Hunt denied the attack in court, but the judge decided that he was lying.

The hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry showed what can go wrong at a big media company.

But the Sunday Times’ exposure of David Hunt proves that sometimes you need big media to expose big wrongs and that it can be huge force for good. Few other media organisations could have run to the  expense of standing this story up.

This article first appeared on Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is @Domponsford on Twitter.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sunday Times. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.