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Hacks in the dock: Duncan Campbell on the history of jailed journalists

What means, legal or illegal, are justified by what ends? And how has the law treated the British journalist over the years?

A look back: Andy Coulson arrives at the Old Bailey ahead of his sentencing, 4 July. Photo: Getty
A look back: Andy Coulson arrives at the Old Bailey ahead of his sentencing, 4 July. Photo: Getty

“It is not often that a man can look back upon his conviction and sentence as a criminal convict with pride and exultation,” wrote W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, after being jailed for child abduction in 1885. “Such however is my case.”

Indeed, so proud of his criminal record was the man described as the father of investigative journalism in Britain, that every year, on the anniversary of his jailing, he would arrive at his office dressed in his prison uniform. Many journalists, most recently Andy Coulson and his News of the World colleagues, have appeared in the dock of the Old Bailey since W T Stead had his collar felt but few could claim, as Stead did, that the Queen was an admirer of their work or that their muckraking led to an important change in the law.

Stead was jailed for three months under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 for purchasing a 13-year-old girl called Eliza Armstrong. He did so to expose the scandal of child prostitution, which was prevalent at the time in London, as W Sydney Robinson’s excellent biography, Muckraker, explains. “I have just interviewed a brothel-keeper who has undertaken to procure for my abuse two English girls of 13 or 14, warranted virgins,” Stead wrote to a friend. “Price £5 per head.” He then published a sensational series of revelations in the Gazette entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. “All those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish” were warned not to read the stories. This, along with news-vendors’ placards proclaiming “I Order Five Virgins” and “Strapping Girls Down”, inevitably led to record sales. Not everyone agreed that Stead was justified in his actions. While the Methodist Times argued that it was what “Christ Himself would have done” and Queen Victoria supposedly “sympathised very keenly”, the Times dismissed Stead as a “self-elected guardian of morals”.

Stead was convicted at the Old Bailey, served most of his time in Holloway, then a men’s prison, and was even allowed to carry on editing the paper from behind bars. As a result of the public and political reaction to the story, the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, where it remains to this day.

So what means, legal or illegal, are justified by what ends? And how has the law treated the British journalist over the years?

Since Stead’s day, many reporters working at the dark end of the Street have had to answer those questions as laws and ethical standards change. It was, for instance, once standard practice to pay convicted criminals for stories. In 1958, Harry Procter, one of the great Fleet Street crime reporters, addressed the subject in his aptly titled memoir, The Street of Disillusion. One of Procter’s big cases was that of John Reginald Christie, the subject of Ludovic Kennedy’s book 10 Rillington Place, who was hanged in 1953 for the murder of his wife; he had also killed at least seven other women. In order to get Christie’s story, Procter’s paper, the Sunday Pictorial (now the Sunday Mirror), agreed to pay for his defence, beating off the Sunday Dispatch, which also offered to foot the legal bill. Imagine that today: newspaper hires top QC to defend slippery serial killer.

Highly strung: journalists dangle from a lamp-post in this 1872 caricature. Image: Getty

Duncan Webb was another crime reporter of the era who sailed close to the wind. In his 1955 memoir, Dead Line for Crime, he recounts how he unmasked the Soho vice rackets, on one occasion tracking down a prostitute to her room: “I hastily pushed two pounds into her hands. ‘Darling!’ she said. ‘Look,’ I said fervently, ‘I don’t want the usual.’

The Australian journalist Murray Sayle, who became a distinguished foreign correspondent with the Sunday Times, worked for Webb as a young reporter and is credited by some with making up the popular phrase “I made my excuses and left”, which was what journalists were meant to do when they were about to compromise themselves.

Sometimes Webb made his excuses and stayed. He became the lover of Cynthia Hume, the wife of a double murderer called Donald Hume, who was acquitted of the murder of Stanley Setty in 1949 and some years later sold his story – “I killed Setty . . . and got away with murder” – to the Sunday Pictorial for £2,000.

In those days, you could not be tried twice for the same offence and the Pictorial even agreed to let Hume skip off abroad with his cash before it ran the story. Nowadays both Hume and the paper would fall foul of the law: the Criminal Justice Act 2003 removed double jeopardy protection and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 prohibits criminals from selling the story of their crimes.

Webb’s rival was Stanley Firmin of the Daily Telegraph, who in his own memoirs, Crime Man, tells of a colleague whose behaviour today would have landed him at the Old Bailey. During a murder investigation near the Blackwall Tunnel in London, the reporter bought a handkerchief, smeared it with blood from his pricked finger and left it in the tunnel where a passer-by would find it and hand it in to the police.

Then he wrote a story about “the clue of the bloodstained handkerchief”. Firmin made it clear that such conduct was “indefensible . . . But the story does, I think, illustrate to some degree the quality of initiative and enterprise that the present-day crime men have, so to speak, inherited.” Indeed.

One case that famously ended at the Old Bailey was that of “the Silent Men”: Reg Foster of the Daily Sketch and Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail. Both refused to reveal their sources for their stories about John Vassall, an Admiralty civil servant who had been blackmailed because of his homosexuality into giving secrets to the KGB and jailed for 18 years in 1963. They were supported in their stance by all of Fleet Street but jailed for contempt for three months and six months, respectively. Paul Johnson, then editor of the New Statesman, wrote that journalists were “seething with anger” over the jailing, although a controversy over whether Foster and Mulholland’s sources ever actually existed rumbles on to this day.

In that period, paying police officers for information was seen by some as part of the job that could be charged to expenses, like taking a taxi. Peter Burden, the crime correspondent for the Daily Mail for more than 25 years, described in his memoir, How I Changed Fleet Street, an occasion when “a famous director of a national newspaper organisation” asked for his advice when delivering a speech to an international conference on press-police relations. Burden noted that the director, in his speech, recalled how, as a young reporter, he had regularly paid police station sergeants for information and for the home addresses of famous people caught up in investigations. “I told him that he was making public that in his early days he regularly bribed policemen – a criminal offence. He immediately deleted those paragraphs, and I received a bonus cheque. And the famous newspaper man’s reputation remained intact.”

Burden explained the relationship between police and press in the late 20th century, a relationship which now, post-Leveson, no longer exists.

“Detectives knew and trusted the crime reporters. They knew the sources of their stories (relayed over beers, purchased by reporters) would never be disclosed. I decided that, while the official information was vital, this pub scenario was not the life for me . . . I decided that one-to-one meetings with selected senior officers at high-class restaurants would be a much more profitable way of spending my expenses.”

Members of the fourth estate who found themselves in the dock in the 1970s tended to work for publications outside the mainstream – International Times, Oz, Nasty Tales, Gay News and Time Out – and certainly did not receive the clubby support of Fleet Street that was offered to Foster and Mulholland.

In perhaps the best-known of these cases, the editors of Oz magazine, Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, found themselves charged at the Old Bailey in 1971 with “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”. This was because they had handed over the magazine to schoolchildren for one edition, the famous – or notorious – “Schoolkids Oz”. The scatological results, including Rupert the Bear minus his trousers, led to an investigation by the Obscene Publications Squad – or the “dirty squad”, as it was known at the time, for more reasons than one.

The prosecution suggested that the trio had conspired “with certain other young persons to produce a magazine containing obscene, lewd, indecent and sexually perverted articles, cartoons and drawings with intent to debauch and corrupt the morals of children and other young persons and to arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted ideas”. John Mortimer QC, counsel for the defence, described the case as standing “at the crossroads of our liberty, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and draw and write what we please”. Many of the liberal great and good – Feliks Topolski, George Melly, John Peel, Edward de Bono – gave evidence for the defence but the three editors were convicted and jailed.

The judge, Michael Argyle, told Dennis (who died of cancer in June this year) that he would receive the shortest sentence, of nine months, because he was “very much less intelligent” than the others. But Argyle made a hash of the case and the three were cleared on appeal.

Dennis had his revenge by becoming a multimillionaire media magnate and got a grovelling apology and a £10,000 charity donation from the Spectator in 1995 after it published some of the judge’s dafter allegations about him.

IT (formerly International Times), the grandfather of the underground press in Britain, was also the target of many speculative police raids and in 1970 it was prosecuted for conspiracy to corrupt public morals and conspiracy to outrage public decency by running gay contact adverts, even though homosexuality had been legalised three years previously. The publishers were convicted on both counts, although cleared of the latter on appeal, and the paper briefly closed down as a result.

While the Oz trial passed into legend, much less is known of the equally entertaining case of Nasty Tales in 1972. This was a comic that emerged out of IT and contained the cheerfully explicit work of the great American cartoonist Robert Crumb, among others. Four members of the Nasty Tales staff, including the cartoonist Ed Barker and Mick Farren, who went on to work for the New Musical Express, were charged.

Farren, who died last year while performing on stage with his band, the Deviants, defended himself, telling the court that “it seemed from where we were in the underground press that being raided by the police was almost a fact of life, like rain”.

The judge in the case, Alan King-Hamilton, could not quite restrain himself from assisting members of the jury in making up their minds. “The pendulum of permissiveness has gone too far and it is time it began to swing back again,” he told them in his summing-up. To the delighted surprise of their rowdy supporters in the public gallery, all four were acquitted.

In 1977, Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News, found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey for blasphemous libel for publishing the poem “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name” by James Kirkup, in which a Roman centurion expresses his love for Christ at the crucifixion. A private prosecution was brought by Mary Whitehouse on behalf of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. Lemon was convicted, sentenced to nine months suspended and fined £500.

Elsewhere in the forest, in the late 1970s, Time Out magazine became involved in exposing British and US government secrecy with help from Philip Agee, a dissident ex-CIA agent. Agee and Time Out’s American reporter Mark Hosenball – who had just co-authored with Duncan Campbell (my namesake, the former New Statesman investigative journalist) a prescient exposé of GCHQ called “The eavesdroppers” for Time Out – were served with deportation orders by the then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, “in the interests of national security”.

Angered by the deportation decision, John Berry, a former member of Signals Intelligence, contacted Time Out and agreed to be interviewed by the reporter Crispin Aubrey and Campbell. The phones were tapped; all three were arrested by Special Branch as they left Berry’s north London flat, held in Brixton Prison and charged under the Official Secrets Act.

The three men were convicted in 1978 under the lesser Section Two of the act at the end of an Old Bailey trial and given non-custodial sentences. The case led to the ABC (after the defendants’ initials) campaign, which challenged the then somewhat deferential national attitude to official secrecy, and to the discrediting of the act.

Journalists who have refused to divulge their sources since the Foster-Mulholland case have usually not gone to prison, though in 1971 the BBC reporter Bernard Falk was held for four days in the cells at Crumlin Road jail in Belfast for refusing to identify an IRA man in the dock as the source of his story. In 1988, the Independent journalist Jeremy Warner was fined £20,000 in a case brought under the Financial Services Act 1986 for refusing to divulge his sources in a story about purported insider trading by civil servants.

“Parliament in a democratic free society lays down what is the law and what must be done,” the judge, Sir Nicolas (later Lord) Browne-Wilkinson, told Warner. “Journalists are no more entitled to say they do not comply with it than anybody else.” Asked by the judge if he thought journalists were “above the law”, Warner responded that although not above the law, reporters “feel they must adopt the principle of confidentiality throughout their dealings with people and must suffer the consequences if, as a result, they are brought into conflict with the courts”. The judge sensibly avoided the overbearing Argyle/King-Hamilton approach and decided that he was not going to risk “the creation of a martyr” by jailing Warner. He imposed the fine instead.

In 1990, a young reporter for the Engineer magazine, Bill Goodwin, also found himself in trouble for protecting his source in a story about Tetra Business Systems. He, too, was initially fined, but eventually took his case to the European Court of Human Rights and won.

Arrests of journalists remained rare until 2011 and the arrival of Operation Weeting and Operation Elveden, the investigations into phone-hacking and payments to public officials, which have led so far to the arrests of more than 60 members of the media and the recent jailings. But while in the past an Old Bailey trial – for protecting a source, exposing an evil or for challenging censorship or government secrecy – could be worn as a badge of honour, hacking the phones of the vulnerable or famous carries no such cachet.

The briefest of glances around the world today – towards Egypt, China, Turkey, Russia, Honduras, wherever – makes clear the far graver dangers that journalists face from governments elsewhere. For a reporter in Britain, a criminal conviction may be a source of “pride and exultation”, a nuisance or a career humiliation, but for others around the world it can be a matter of life or death. l

Duncan Campbell is a former crime correspondent for the Guardian