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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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

PATRICK A. BURNS/NEW YORK TIMES CO./GETTY IMAGES
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We could be heroes: the world according to The Road to Character

David Brooks’s moral handbook, out in paperback, offers a vision of the good life. But in focusing on individuals he misses the bigger picture.

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” says the hero of Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo. ­Increasingly, this sounds a jarring note: we are more conscious than we were a couple of decades ago that we have alarmingly few resources for thinking about what a good human life looks like in terms other than material prosperity. There are more and more books, research projects and worried op-ed pieces about the need to recover the language of virtue or honour – just as there are more discussions about the nature of human happiness. In sharp contrast to most earlier societies (and to most non-Western societies today), we in the north Atlantic world apparently don’t know how to boil an egg, as far as defining the good life is concerned. Brecht’s dictum could be read a little differently: our sense of a lack of “heroes” points up just what an unhappy or unfortunate ­society we are.

One way of responding is to do what the New York Times’s in-house conservative David Brooks does in this brisk and readable book, received with enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 2015. Now out in paperback, The Road to Character feels particularly pertinent to some immediate issues right now: the level of public cynicism about ­politicians and “experts”, witnessed in the catastrophic EU referendum, or the bland managerialism that is replacing discussion about the core values of our educational system. He identifies the fundamental problem as the erosion of “character”, understood as the capacity to draw on inner reserves of strength to deal with conflict, failure and frustration.

Brooks sets up a contrast between what he calls “Adam I” and “Adam II” – the self that is preoccupied with the stock exchange of reputation, approval and material success, and the self that is focused on “moral joys”, putting moral growth and stability above prestige, laying down a firm foundation of self-scrutiny as the only basis for self-respect. The book offers a series of ­appropriately old-fashioned stories about heroes – “Great Lives” ranging from St Augustine to Dr Johnson, from the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to the soldier and strategist George Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame) and the Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day. Each chapter takes one or two central figures and outlines their story, examining what conditions and habits enabled them to survive the struggles they faced in living out their calling, and picking out a central characteristic (“Self-Mastery”, “Ordered Love”) that they exemplify.

A final chapter elaborates on the development of what Brooks calls the “Big Me” culture that has grown up, not just (as is often supposed) in the baby-boomer generation, but ever since the Second World War. The origin of the problem, he argues, is in the great exhalation and the release of tension that the end of war brought about, with its expectations of ease and lack of challenge, so successfully exploited through an explosion in availability of consumer goods.

Fifteen principles or guidelines are listed to help us recover the perspectives we have lost. We need humility, for example; we also need the sense that we are moulded and strengthened by struggle and so should not avoid it. We need help from outside – the prosaic human outside of communities and institutions and the larger outside of “grace”, the unexpected arrival of strength from unknown sources. We need to know (that is to say, we need to acknowledge) what we don’t know. We need to learn the grain of human nature so that what we do has a chance of surviving for the long term. We need to think of ourselves as made for “holiness” not happiness, for a settled and comprehensive integrity.

Brooks is not unaware of the irony of writing a book that offers this sort of tabulated advice while railing against the ­self-help culture that tells us all how wonderful we really are. But the irony is still mordant: it is as if, in order to recover the unselfconscious moral or spiritual nourishment of an older culture, we have to deploy just the type of fussy self-probing that sets us most clearly apart from that environment.

The trouble with the principles he so painstakingly lists is that neither any one of them nor the ensemble will work if we are thinking about them. The lives he narrates are what they are because someone has been unselfconsciously possessed by a vision of life that compels and draws the focus away from the self. People become “holy” (a word to which I shall come back) as a by-product of attending to something drastically other than themselves. It is no use looking for a philosophy of life that will make you holy; that would be to instrumentalise the vision rather than surrender to it. The humility, the “moral realism”, the sense of limitation, the willingness to be surprised by grace or joy – these are various ways of describing the decentring of the self that ­results from being overtaken by a consciousness of what is demanded of you, either by a vision of the world or by a wholly trusted institution.

And there lies the problem for contemporary culture. We have learned to be wary of comprehensive visions and grand narratives, and we have developed an unprecedentedly corrosive scepticism about institutions. David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, observed about forty years ago that we were entering a “dark night of our institutions” – a period in which the integrity and meaningfulness of organised corporate work within a carefully conserved tradition of behaviour was no longer taken for granted. That institutions become self-serving and defensive is beyond question; but the situation was undoubtedly made more intense by the cultural climate of the 1980s and afterwards, in which a narrow definition of “value for money”, cynicism about public service and a deep and resentful assumption that all professional bodies would automatically be closed shops combined to subject many old institutions to externally imposed norms and expectations.

Brooks specifically writes about the importance of institutions for his version of the good life, but does not provide much analysis of why this kind of support is so much weaker than it was. An obsessively close focus on performance and profit or economy in the short term will not generate the sense of mutual expectation and long-term fidelity that can inspire selflessness. And, as has been remarked frequently since the 2008 financial crisis, institutions that are encouraged to be ruthless or cavalier in their relations with employees should not be surprised if there is a deficit in corporate morale and corporate morality, let alone ordinary professional loyalty.

But this is not quite all. The institutions Brooks cites as producing “character” are very diverse, from the Catholic Church to the armed forces, and even the more nebulous “institution” of old-style journalism. The diversity poses its own question. Not all such institutions are manifestly working with inner integrity or justice. It is possible for basically unhealthy institutions to produce “character” simply by providing clear structure and discipline; but do we then say that the SS is a school for character? Not easy to answer: an institution of this sort might produce a kind of selflessness, a sense of meaning detached from the individual’s agenda. But we should also – surely – want to say that it was serving a deformed and corrupt idea of human identity, and thus a deformed and corrupt idea of the self. To abandon the self to an institutional identity of this kind is not to be delivered from the ambivalence of self-will but to identify with a poisonous self-will of another kind: the corporate egotism of racial violence and mass terror directed against the Other.

Which suggests that we need to fill out the notion of character a bit more fully. The language of character usually has a great deal to do with what we could call the “formal” requirements of good behaviour – habits of self-questioning, devotion to something more than one’s gratification, the sense of limit and mortality, and so on. But we need to add substantive elements: habits of mind and heart that tend to the well-being of others without reserve, an openness to feel or at least register the weight of another’s (any other’s) pain, an acceptance of solidarity.

Several of Brooks’s figures certainly exemplify this – as in the cases of Frances Perkins (an architect of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal), Dorothy Day (who founded a Catholic anarchist network ministering to the homeless and destitute) and Bayard Rustin (whose leading role in the civil rights struggle prompted controversy) – but the distinctiveness of their work is slightly obscured by placing them next to others such as George Marshall, or even George Eliot. The ambitious word “holiness” feels awkward applied to Marshall and Eliot, whatever we might say about their wholly admirable lives. There is a passion to let something else “come through” that characterises Day and Perkins; a level of radicality in serving a vision that goes beyond plain integrity and courage. It is not a matter of confessional religiousness (Rustin’s religious identity was a complex affair), but it is definitely to do with a belief that things (and people) are the way they are, that their sheer existence makes uncompromising moral demands on us, and that no transient system of worldly power can redefine these demands.

A good institution builds some of the habits we need to resist that institution when it is tempted to complacent or self-serving behaviour. It doesn’t just create institutional virtues or disciplines, but does something to embody the kind of ­“humility” Brooks commends: the sceptical but also generous realism that keeps our individual and collective self-satisfaction under scrutiny.

What do we have to learn from a book like this? One obvious lesson relates to what we think about institutions. There are some sorts of political radicalism that are slow or reluctant to think through what healthy, middle-level institutions look and feel like, and so have yielded the field to an easy cynicism about public service and corporate loyalty. It would not hurt the left to give more attention to the Good Institution. What makes a well-functioning business, a company that people are proud to belong to, a school or hospital or professional body that provides a solid orientation towards the wider well-being of the community? Even in an age of fragmenting work patterns, these questions are not empty; indeed, they become all the more urgent when fluidity and insecurity in the job market allow some employers and organisations to get away with unjust practices. Some critics of Brooks have accused him of “smugness” because he fails to spell out the negative impact on “character” of sheer economic instability and social inequality. This is not wholly fair; yet all he says needs supplementing with some harder thinking in these areas.

Moreover, as has already been said, it is essential to keep the focus on character not so much as a style of living that accepts limits and deferrals, as on the kind of vision that makes sense of limits and deferrals, that would make struggle and frustration worthwhile. This entails a hard look at a public educational philosophy that has become largely functionalist and reductive, and has lost sight of any idea that a good education is properly aimed at kindling the imagination with a sense of what might be worth suffering and struggling for. I read Brooks’s book at the same time as wrestling with the Dalek-inflected prose of the latest UK white paper on higher education (incomprehensibly subtitled Success as a Knowledge Economy), looking in vain for any mention of intelligence, enjoyment or inspiration as connected in any way with quality of teaching. It should not be surprising that there is a deficit in all the areas Brooks notes if the ethos of institutions of education at every level is dominated by the language of “performance” and marketable outcomes, rather than evoking the possibility of generating joy in a vision of the world.

Simone Weil famously said that most of our human ills needed cure by the imagination rather than the will. Brooks seems to see this; but the register of his discussion slips back irresistibly to an individual and private framing of the problem. “Character” without solidarity, and so without compassion and a principled universal perspective on human dignity, can be yet another stalking horse for self-regard and self-protection. If we need heroes – and I think Brooks is right that we do, and that most of his ­chosen subjects should be among them – they should have more to them than this. 

The Road to Character by David Brooks is published by Penguin (320pp, £9.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies