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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

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Does Tony Blair deserve so much of our contempt?

Tom Bower slays the former Labour prime minister in his latest biography – but is it justified?

I doubt that Tony Blair leaped with joy when he learned that he was the next subject of a Tom Bower biography. The writer’s rogues’ gallery had so far included Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed Al Fayed, Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Conrad Black. Bower does not do fair, he does hatchet. Blair was clearly meat for the slaughterhouse.

After almost 600 pages of reputation-shredding, I must admit to a twinge of ­sympathy for Blair. Much of him was rubbish, yes, but this much rubbish? The winner of three elections came to power in 1997 after staging one of the great coups of postwar politics. The “Blair project” stripped Labour of decades of ideological dross and made it electable. It re-engineered the left of British politics and won the admiration of even Margaret Thatcher. Bower largely ignores this achievement.

Instead we meet Blair installed in Downing Street, surrounded by sycophants, but utterly unprepared for office and his ministers even less so. His confidence is total, his programme waffle, little more than a string of abstractions about things “getting better”, with some headline-grabbing targets to prove it. Within months, Blair emerges from Bower’s narrative like Frodo Baggins, wandering across Mordor with little sense of destination. He grapples with one venture after another – the fiends of the
NHS, bogus asylum-seekers, gold-plated academies – with Gordon Brown as Gollum and Cherie Blair as the Black Rider. Our hero has around him only a tiny band of loyalists, Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Peter Mandelson, on whom he is pathetically dependent.

Bower’s technique is to select five topics – immigration, health, education, energy and war – to exemplify Blair’s style. More than 180 participants are interviewed and published records ransacked. He proceeds through Blair’s term of office chronologically, diving in and out of each subject in turn, much as circumstances forced Blair to do. He recounts little that is new to those who have trod this territory but he well conveys the pandemonium that is any modern British government.

Thus, on immigration, we see Blair trapped between his belief that newcomers are good for the economy and a slow realisation that this is electorally disastrous. As the inflow soars past half a million, with chaos at border controls, Blair’s ignorance of government process becomes stark. He blames officials, judges, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and even his beloved Delivery Unit. Eventually he goes on television
and simply pledges that the number of asylum-seekers will fall “by half within six months”. Blunkett is aghast at the naivety.

The same is true of the NHS and education. Blair’s initial approach is to rid the public services of Thatcher’s markets and hurl vast sums at them. As this fails to deliver swift results, Blair thrashes about, turns turtle, sacks ministers and appoints advisers, demanding ever more money from a truculent Brown. He seems quite unable to master the intricacies of government. When he complains that Jack Straw has been “captured by [his] department”, the retort is that Blair has been “captured by the fairies” – in this case the former BBC man John Birt, his useless aide.

A third of a million new NHS staff are hired even as productivity plummets. Doctors get a 30 per cent pay rise for shorter hours, yet the nation is still near the bottom of some health league tables. To Blair, promising is delivering. As one colleague observes, “It’s government by assertion, and hope that the facts will catch up.” In 2006 he promises to build 200 academies, at double the cost of normal schools, and then suddenly promises 400. Figures are snatched out of the air.

Blair and Brown indulge in competitive initiative-itis. Brown’s health action zones, New Deal for Communities and individual learning accounts (later dropped because they were too open to fraud) are countered by Blair’s strategy reports, delivery units and offices of government reform. Around the time of the gloomy 2005 ­election, Blair launches “five-year plans [for] each government department”, 20 targets for delivery and six “people’s promises”.

Blair is terrible at debate or criticism. He doesn’t like civil servants – whom Thatcher cleverly manipulated – and excludes them from his “sofa” meetings. As a result, minutes are not taken and little is done. Blair’s response to any crisis (meaning a poor headline) is to reshuffle the minister. Straw, Blunkett, John Reid, Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly seem to be in perpetual motion, their initiatives scuppered by Brown’s opposition and Blair’s failure to confront him.

At the centre of the web are Campbell and Powell, in charge respectively of presentation and executive decision. Campbell loathes the media and Powell loathes civil servants, so relations are fraught. They shut Blair off from Britain’s constitutional checks and balances – collective cabinet and an independent civil service. The prime minister is left with no levers to pull in his undoubted desire to make his country a better place.

The Downing Street madhouse also contains Cherie Blair (who hates Brown), Campbell (who hates Cherie), Anji Hunter, Blair’s director of government relations (whom Cherie hates), and Campbell’s wife (who seems to hate everyone). As for the black cloud next door, no prime minister has cursed himself with such a nightmare colleague as Gordon Brown. This bundle of envy and ambition – grossly overrated as chancellor – seems to end every conversation by slamming down the phone with the refrain, “And when are you f***ing resigning?” It is no wonder that Blair prefers to tangle with the Taliban.

All this is grippingly readable and Blair’s inability to assert sovereignty over Downing Street is the source for much black humour. Twice Blair summons up the courage to sack Brown and twice his courage fails. But Bower unbalances his criticism of Blair by disregarding the scale of the task that the prime minister set himself, especially against the history of Britain in the 1990s.

Detoxifying Labour was never going to end with the election victory in 1997. Blair understood that a new Labour approach to government needed to build on Thatcherism, not turn back the clock. Bower largely ignores Blairism’s debt to Thatcherism even where, in his selected topics, the continuities – privatisation and internal markets – emerged through the fog of war. Blair was obsessed with Thatcher, even making her his first VIP guest in Downing Street.

Labour’s old guard was never going to take this lying down. The public-service unions resisted, Labour councils resisted, Blair’s colleagues resisted. Brown may have been infatuated with City bankers and recklessly used private finance for hospitals, schools and the London Tube, but he cynically revived Old Labour as a weapon against the prime minister. It is to Blair’s credit that he never surrendered as David Cameron has done to George Osborne. Bower convincingly argues that he stayed in office so long in part to save the country from his “psychologically flawed” rival.

Where Bower is most convincing is on Blair’s wars. The brief conflict in Kosovo in 1998-99 was a success, with Blair stiffening Washington to sign up for bombing and forcing the Serbs to retreat. Thus emboldened, he appointed himself envoy to capture Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, again a worthy venture that Bower largely ignores. But from then on his obsequiousness towards George Bush, dismaying even the one general he trusted, Charles Guthrie, drove him to disaster.

***

We now enter the maelstrom of dodgy dossiers, suborned intelligence and the death of David Kelly. The sole defence of Blair’s blindness to reality through the sorry saga is that he appears genuinely to have been deceived about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction through Alastair Campbell’s desire that the spymasters Richard Dearlove and John Scarlett “sex up” the threat. Blair’s reliance on Campbell, like his cowardice towards Brown, is a lethal thread through Bower’s narrative.

By the time of the orchestrating of the Hutton and Butler reports to whitewash Blair, the No 10 bunker has taken on the air of Nixon’s last days. There is the same contempt for process, the frantic survival instinct, the loathing of enemies. What is most remarkable is that Blair’s gift for presentation never leaves him. I recall being (almost) persuaded by his parliamentary speech on Saddam’s WMDs. Could a prime minister really deceive his country on this scale?

Bower correctly analyses Blair’s confused justifications for his warmongering. The invasion of Afghanistan was to teach terrorist regimes a lesson but it got sucked into soggy “nation-building”, with Helmand to become “a mini-Belgium”. Blair invaded Iraq to eradicate weapons of mass destruction but wrote in his memoirs that it was to topple Saddam, as “the whole future of Islam” was at stake. He wanted to crush “the forces opposed to modernisation”. War was a sort of New Labour project.

Blair’s final months were typical of the man. He halted a corruption inquiry into BAE in Saudi Arabia. He sacked the head of the committee on standards in public life, for too assiduously pursuing sleaze. He showered peerages on dodgy financiers. Twenty-five of Blair’s 292 peers gave a total of £25m to Labour. Blair seemed to see little wrong in rewarding donors with seats in parliament and was the first serving prime minister to be interviewed by the police, on three occasions. He was exonerated only at the moment of his departure in 2007.

Before he went, Blair passed into the future tense. He had saved and transformed his country. Now he would save the world. His diminished team planned his relaunch as a world statesman. An aide, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, decided he must reconnect “with the public . . . go with crowds wanting more . . . He should be the star who won’t even play the last encore.” He appeared on Blue Peter and Songs of Praise. Irritatingly, the Queen refused a farewell banquet. Instead, his final visitor was Arnold Schwarzenegger, of Hollywood and California.

Having failed in his attempt to become president of the EU, Blair gets Bush to appoint him to the diplomatic “Quartet”, supposedly to bring peace to the Middle East. The day after leaving Downing Street, he flies to Tel Aviv to get down to serious business. Ostensibly he is to be a diplomat but he combines that with making money.

The final chapters of Tom Bower’s book make for sad reading. Blair and Cherie set up a miasma of charities and companies, enveloped in offshore secrecy and security, while the taxpayer pays millions for Quartet civil servants and police protection. Bower shows how Blair uses his celebrity access for personal enrichment. He consorts with Colonel Gaddafi, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, anyone who will see him and accept a deal for a “consultancy”. He would tell all comers, “We do business and philanthropy,” adding the tired Blairism: “The purpose is not to make money; it is to make a difference.”

Bower recounts one visit after another to dodgy regimes and middlemen, borrowing jets left, right and centre. Blair still enjoys access to David Cameron, inducing him to pay a humiliating visit to Nazarbayev in 2013 as part of some unmentionable deal. By then his stock in the Middle East had plunged because of his ties to Israel’s Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu. He loses first his expenses, then his job, then seemingly his contact with morality: invited to speak for 20 minutes to a famine charity in Stockholm, Blair demands £250,000. The charity desperately suggests £125,000. Blair refuses.

Britain did not go off the rails under Tony Blair. Even if he sowed the seeds of economic woe, many grew rich and many more became less poor. Blair made Labour safe for Thatcherism, which, like it or not, was an achievement. He introduced a minimum wage, advanced gays, half settled Northern Ireland and created a mayor for London. Against his own judgement – and thanks to Brown – Britain stayed out of the euro. But there was no lasting reform of public services, which became the most centralised in Europe. Not one major power station was built. The overall legacy was a mess.

In the final analysis Blair must take responsibility for plunging his country into “wars of choice” that were unnecessary, immoral and hugely expensive, some £40bn in lives and treasure. This was the real hanging offence. Bower interviewed his first three cabinet secretaries, Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull. Each of them broke the customary silence of his office and said he did not regard Blair as “a laudable guardian of the public’s trust”. Bower is surely right to reach the same conclusion.

Tom Bower’s “Broken Vows: Tony Blair – the Tragedy of Power” is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue