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

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war