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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Leila Molana-Allen
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Why Britain and the US are helping Lebanon fight a secret front against Islamic State

The Lebanese Army has ousted 600 Isil militants from the border with Syria, but the assault was only possible with multi-million dollar UK and US military aid. 

On a craggy hilltop near Lebanon’s border with Syria, a Lebanese soldier is describing the British countryside.

“I went to Wales and the north of England for training in 2013,” he says. “There were sheep and cows and green fields.”

Knowing it is a sensitive topic, he is loath to expand. Instead, he extols the quality of the Lebanese Army food for troops deployed in this barren landscape. “We have meat, bread, vegetables, everything. We don’t know how long we will be up here. But we are good, and look at me – I’m fit.”

In late August, the Lebanese Army (LAF) began the "Dawn of the Outskirts" operation to oust 600 Isil militants from 120 sq km of mountainous territory in Ras Baalbeck on Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria. Troops made signficant progress against the terror group, which had occupied the land since 2014. Less than 10 days later, Lebanon’s President announced the job done.

Embedded with Lebanese army troops, journalists were permitted entry to land retaken just days previously from IS militants.

Convoys of desert buggies, Humvees and pick-up trucks kicked up swirls of dust alongside burnt-out vehicles, which soldiers said had belonged to IS militants.

Troop morale appeared high as we passed groups lounging around their armed personnel carriers, flicking V for victory signs and posing in their battle vests.

“We hope they [IS] try to attack again so we can show them what we have got," a senior ranking officer boasted.

The battle on this little-known front against IS – which is losing territory across Iraq and Syria – was mounted with multi-million dollar military aid packages from Britain and the USA.

An army source in Beirut told the New Statesman before the assault began that 90 per cent of the weapons in use were supplied by the USA, and UK-provided skills and equipment were essential.

Like most things in Lebanon, though, that is not something everyone agrees on.

***

The UK generally plays down its military involvement in the Mediterranean country, while the US is much more public. Earlier this month, it published a long list of weapons it had supplied to the Lebanese Army in the past year alone, including 50 automatic grenade launchers, 4,000 M4 rifles, and over half a million rounds of ammunition. Total spending in the past decade tops more than a billion US dollars.

As well as ousting IS, the operation saw the north-east  area come under Lebanese state control for the first time. Up until now, it has been an unmarked border zone.

Training on UK soil, such as that described by the Lebanese soldier, has not been confirmed by British authorities. But substantial military aid from Britain is intended to keep Lebanon’s borders secure. The UK has been delivering a “train and equip” programme for Land Border Regiments, who oversee the north-eastern area.  By April 2017, the Government had delivered 320 Land Rovers, 3300 sets of body armour, a secure radio communication network, 30 border watchtowers and over 20 Forward Operating Bases along the border, spending £61.5m.

Heavy weaponry supplied by the American government. Credit: Leila Molana-Allen

All this has worked relatively well in creating a proper army out of what was once an ineffective and unorganised non-institution.

Lebanese soldiers are, naturally, defensive, when faced with the idea that they wouldn’t be able to cope without UK and US backing. Still, one soldier, who like nearly all troops deployed for the anti-IS offensive asked to remain anonymous, admitted things would be much tougher without it: “The help from the UK and US supports us. We would survive without it, but it would be harder and there would be many more dead and injured.”

***

Britain and the USA do not simply dole out military aid to Lebanon because they feel like it. It is a key way in which western governments hope to shape alliances in the Middle East. The idea in western policy is that a strong Lebanese Army will serve several purposes.

“The US and UK calculate that reinforcing the Lebanese state and its security apparatus will help Lebanon meet the successive challenges of Sunni Jihadi groups threatening to overrun the region,” says Middle East analyst Tobias Schneider.

The second idea is that a strong army  – one of the few institutions that has cross-sectarian support in Lebanon – will lessen the influence and power of Hezbollah. The Lebanese political party’s military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the UK and the US governments. That would contain Iran’s influence in Lebanon – Hezbollah is a proxy of the Islamic Republic – and reduce the likelihood of a new war with Israel.

But there is a problem in the west’s calculation that a strong army equals a weak Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah today being a pillar of Shia politics in the country, there won't ever be sufficient political consensus in Lebanon for the army to directly challenge or confront the ‘Party of God,’” continues Schneider, referring to Hezbollah by its name in English.

Hezbollah has wide-ranging support and political alliances in Lebanon, stretching beyond its Shi’ite core to other sects. Lebanese convention dictates that the President must be Christian. The incumbent, Michel Aoun, is in power with Hezbollah support. Strengthening the Army will not eliminate the wide-held belief that the militia has a legitimate role as an anti-Israel force. 

A staunch ally of the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah has played down the importance of foreign aid to the Lebanese Army.

Instead, in a speech this week in Baalbeck, a Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah greeted an ecstatic crowd with the idea that defeating IS meant successfully foiling a US-Israeli plot. 

“The US-Israeli plot in the region failed and the US-Israeli dreams that were put on ISIL and other terrorist groups fell”, Nasrallah told an audience of tens of thousands of people, who included girls screaming like fans at a One Direction concert. He spoke via video link, blaming security fears for his longstanding absence from public appearances.

Enraptured crowds listen to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Baalbeck. Credit Lizzie Porter.

Hezbollah draws supporters into the belief that “the resistance” – Hezbollah fighters – and an alliance with the Syrian Army are behind the Lebanese Army’s success, not the US or UK aid. On the same day that the latter launched the Dawn of the Outskirts operation, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army began an assault on IS fighters from the Syrian side. A week later, both parties announced ceasefires almost simultaneously.  

That belief goes right down to the Lebanese person in the street, at least in some parts of the country. Outside the Baalbeck rally, 18-year-old Abbas carried an impossibly large yellow and green Hezbollah flag, and told the New Statesman, “The army needs the resistance and the resistance needs the army – they have a shared role”.

Hezbollah is proud of boasting its good relationships with both the Lebanese and Syrian armies.

That puts the Lebanese Army on rather a sticky wicket. They have been at pains to deny any such cosy relationship with Hezbollah, mindful of the threat that proof of co-ordination with a proscribed group would pose to its US-supplied dollars.

“In the current political climate, Congressional hawks could easily try and leverage collusion with the Iranian proxy militia and designated terror organisation into a full assistance stop,” says Schneider.

It has happened before: in 2010, the USA cut $100 million in aid after an incident on the Lebanon-Israel border. 

During the Ras Baalbeck embed, Lebanese Army General Fady Daoud welcomed journalists into the operations room for the anti-IS operation. A journalist from Al Manar, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese news outlet, asked what he knew about “resistance” positions across the border in Syria. Daoud, suddenly looking slightly flustered, gestured wildly at the scale model of Lebanon’s border territory in front of him. He insisted his forces were only dealing with land up to the border, and he had no information about positions in Syria.

***

The UK’s military aid programme for Lebanon is set to continue until at least 2019, by which time it will have trained some 11,000 troops. The embassy in Beirut declined a a request for an interview, but said in a statement that the UK is a “proud supporter” of the Lebanese Armed Forces. “We welcome the news that the LAF have been able to clear Daesh from Lebanese territory.” 

But the USA, after making such enormous investments over the past decade, plans to cut its military spending on Lebanon next year. The Trump administration appears to want to abandon the long-held counter-Hezbollah strategy of strengthening the army, and tackle the group with sanctions instead. The former hasn’t worked because of Hezbollah’s entrenched support bases in Lebanon. The latter also risks isolating Lebanon and creating economic instability in a country where the government already fails to provide basic commodities such as electricity and water.

Nasrallah also has a point: while the Lebanese Army led the anti-IS offensive and denied co-operation with Hezbollah, it was a Party of God deal that eventually caused the Sunni militants to flee Lebanese soil. In exchange for information on the whereabouts of nine kidnapped Lebanese soldiers (found dead), IS was allowed safe passage from Lebanon to Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. That caused another ruckus, leaving Iraq wondering why Hezbollah was striking a deal to place more IS fighters on its border.

In Baalbeck, the USA is not part of Lebanon’s stability – at least rhetorically. To a crowd repeating after him, Nasrallah hammers home Hezbollah’s ‘golden equation”: that Lebanon is safeguarded by a trilogy of “the army, the people, the resistance [Hezbollah].” There is no explanation that the “army” part of the equation would struggle without the USA. But it would struggle without Hezbollah too. 

Lizzie Porter was reporting from the outskirts of Ras Baalbeck, north-east Lebanon.

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit