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.


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?


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".


But you know ...                                                                                                                                                           .


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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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.