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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

DAN MURRELL FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Beware the kaiser chiefs

Angry, unpredictable, self-absorbed and a danger to the world – the many similarities between Donald Trump and Germany’s last emperor.

A Donald Trump presidency now seems increasingly unlikely, but the tycoon’s success in securing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination has concentrated minds. No one remotely like him has made it this far before. Richard Nixon behaved erratically on occasion – drinking Scotch and watching the film Patton all day, for instance, to steel himself for the invasion of Cambodia. And clearly something was starting to go wrong with Ronald Reagan in his second term. Yet both men were paragons of poise and equanimity compared to the current Republican nominee. What, we all wonder, could happen if the highest office in the world’s most powerful nation were to be occupied by someone so erratic and unpredictable?

In answering this question, we could look back to 1888, when the 29-year-old Wilhelm Hohenzollern ascended the throne to become the last kaiser of the German empire. The new monarch – the first grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – was boastful, arrogant and impetuous. He spent most of his waking hours talking, arguing, shouting, predicting, threatening and generally unbosoming himself of his latest preoccupations to whomever happened to be within earshot. Even when he made the utmost effort to restrain himself, the indiscretions kept slipping out.

The effect is heightened in retrospect by the way that almost everything the kaiser said, no matter how risible, was recorded and preserved for posterity. It’s all there in the archives: page after page of cajoling, whining, demanding, vociferating and babbling –fantastical geopolitical speculations, crackpot plans, sarcastic asides and off-colour jokes. Reading these transcripts of Wilhelm opining on every conceivable subject is like listening to a dog barking inside a locked car.

Yet the kaiser wasn’t just indiscreet. He was also impulsive and unbalanced. He was prone to adopting a self-righteous and contemptuous tone. He showed an unhealthy interest in the sexual behaviour of his royal colleagues. He was self-absorbed and often had fits of anger.

He was not stupid, however. Contemporaries testify that he was quick to grasp complex subject matter or to pick up the thread of a conversation. The problem was not his intellect as such, but his lack of judgement. He would overshoot the mark, admixing facts with fantasies born of anger or paranoid speculations about the future.

So frequent were the kaiser’s verbal gaffes that historians have wondered whether he was in his right mind. The Freudian psycho­historian Thomas A Kohut argued that emotional deficiencies in the young Wilhelm’s relationship with his parents might have induced a narcissistic personality disorder. The kaiser’s most authoritative biographer, John Röhl, proposed that the roots of the problem were neurological and grew from an insufficiency of oxygen during birth. The resulting minor cerebral damage, Röhl argued, though asymptomatic when Wilhelm was born, laid the foundations for a “secondary neuroticisation” in his childhood and adolescence.

Neither of these hypotheses can be verified and both may be false, but they offer explanations for some of the most striking traits of the adult Wilhelm II: a tendency to respond to even measured criticism with vengeful rage, a compulsion to associate things and persons with himself and to view the world in excessively personal terms, irascibility and incoherence under stress, extreme vanity, an alarming lack of empathy and the inability to discern the boundary between fact and speculation.

Whether Donald Trump suffers from a diagnosable disorder, it is also ­impossible to say, but the parallels with the kaiser are striking. Trump’s problems with the boundary between truth and fantasy have been widely remarked on. The man who claimed in 2012, “My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth,” either cannot see the line or doesn’t mind which side of it he is on. His anger management issues are now a matter of common knowledge, as is his wont to drift into incoherence under pressure. His taunting of the parents of a Muslim soldier who died while fighting in the US armed forces demonstrated an empathy bypass that is unusual even in the highest strata of the political class.

Trump, like Wilhelm, seems to take everything personally. Cities are places where he owns property; other people are appendices to his ego-narratives. Referring to an injury suffered by the New York Yankees baseball player Derek Jeter in 2012, Trump tweeted (erroneously, as it happens) that the sportsman had broken his ankle “one day after he sold his apartment in Trump World Tower”.

Vanity is another thing that Trump and Wilhelm have in common. The kaiser cared as assiduously for his erect moustaches as Trump does for the pillow of golden fibres on the top of his head, although it is not recorded that the kaiser ever boasted about the size of his genitalia or of his “success” in getting women to comply with his sexual demands.

 

***

 

The US presidency and the German imperial office are not precise analogues. The emperor succeeded by birth, not by election. The Reichstag of the German empire was a less effective check on the executive in domestic affairs than Congress is in the United States of America.

Yet there are also many parallels. Imperial Germany was a nation of federal states, and so is the US. The powers to sign or veto legislation, appoint federal officials, command the armed forces and receive ambassadors are among those that were or are assigned to the highest office of both systems. The kaiser did not manage all official contacts with foreign governments, as the US president does with the secretary of state, but he had the means to reach out to other heads of state and Wilhelm II made energetic use of this privilege.

In the sphere of domestic policy, the incumbents of both offices have faced formidable constraints. The president has to work his or her way through a maze of departments and agencies in order to execute laws passed by Congress (and Congress, too, can play an obstructive role). For the kaiser, the first and greatest obstacle was the imperial chancellor, a kind of super-minister who had great influence in the system – as one would expect from a constitution drawn up by Bismarck, who was the first holder of that office. And the chancellor was of no use to the emperor unless he could secure majorities from the Reichstag, the German imperial parliament.

Those who worry about the risks arising from a Trump presidency usually have their eye on foreign policy, however, and here the comparison looks rather different. Wilhelm II came to the throne determined to run his country’s external relations. “The foreign office?” he once joked. “Why, I am the German foreign office!”

Yet his interventions were so inconsistent that often they cancelled each other out. In the late 1890s, he was taken with the idea of founding a “New Germany” in the jungles of Brazil and demanded that the imperial administration do everything it could to stimulate German emigration to the region – but nothing happened. In 1899, he declared that he had always planned to acquire Mesopotamia as a German colony, but that never happened, either: the British got it instead. A year later, he proposed to the then chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, that China be partitioned among the great powers. In 1903, he announced, “Latin America is our goal,” and ordered the imperial admiralty staff to prepare invasion plans for Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York. Yet this got nowhere, because, among other things, the army never agreed to supply the necessary troops or logistical support.

The kaiser quickly picked up new ideas, but dropped them as soon as he was bored by them. Proposals flowed endlessly from the imperial pen: for an alliance with Russia and France against Japan and England; or with Russia, England and France against the United States; or with China and the US against Japan and the Triple Entente; or with Japan and the US against the Entente, and so on. Usually, however, the more frequent and the zanier the proposals got, the less impact they had on the process of decision-making.

“It seems that His Majesty is recommending another new programme,” Chancellor Hohenlohe complained in February 1897, after receiving a series of non sequiturs from the emperor’s desk. “But I don’t take it too tragically. I’ve seen too many programmes come and go.” The furious marginal jottings through which the emperor communicated with his officials were not to be considered as “orders”, another senior functionary remarked, but as “future music” that was purely speculative in character.

We haven’t yet had the chance to see how a Trump-led foreign policy would pan out in practice, but his pronouncements on foreign policy are already strikingly Wilhelmine. They are unpredictable variations on the official line, driven by his own emotions and bordering on incoherence. Trump on China: “The Chinese leaders are not our friends. I’ve been criticised for calling them our enemy. But what else do you call the people who are destroying your children’s and grandchildren’s future?” But then, this year, on North Korea: “I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly.”

Trump has poured scorn on Nato, the keystone of US security policy, and raised doubts as to whether he would fulfil America’s treaty obligations to its European allies. He says he will get Mexico to pay for the anti-immigrant mega-wall that he hopes to build along the US-Mexico border. He has repeatedly expressed solidarity with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the saviour of the Assad regime in Syria, whose bombs are reducing Aleppo to rubble as we write. He has praised the Turkish strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The nuttiness of all this posturing might lead us to believe that Trump would sooner or later find himself in the same pickle as the kaiser, encircled by rings of courtiers, advisers and officials adept at managing the sovereign person and insulating the system from destabilising interventions from above. But not necessarily. In foreign and defence policy, the US president has a great deal of latitude – much more, indeed, than the kaiser did. Franklin Roosevelt got the US into a shooting war with Nazi Germany in the North Atlantic even though most Americans were opposed to joining the conflict. Lyndon B Johnson secretly bombed Cambodia for three years. Richard Nixon vastly expanded that bombing but still kept it secret – he even had the Pentagon give US pilots false co-ordinates, so that they thought they were bombing targets in South Vietnam, and he tried to keep the secretaries of state and defence, opponents of this policy, in the dark. According to the US constitution, only Congress can declare war. But it hasn’t declared war on anyone since 1941, and the US has been at war a lot since then.

 

***

 

The reign of the last German kaiser ended with the outbreak of war in 1914, leading to four years of carnage and a defeat that traumatised the nation, sowing the seeds for future catastrophes. The role of the kaiser and of his country in these unhappy events is the subject of a vast and complex debate. This makes the extraction of historical analogies difficult. Speculating on future wars is a fool’s game. Yet one thing is clear: whether or not the kaiser’s actions or statements made war more likely, his impact as a figurehead was disastrous.

As the most visible German in the world, Wilhelm II set the tone: his gaffes, belligerence and jumpiness personified everything that worried the other powers about his nation’s policies. He accentuated the paranoia and uncertainty in the system, rather than correcting it. If Trump becomes president, he, too, will personify America and its ­democracy in the eyes of the world. With or without arbitrary international interventions, that is a sobering prospect.

When his empire collapsed under the strain of warfare and defeat in 1918 and he was forced into exile in the Netherlands, Wilhelm II blamed the Americans, the British, the French, Edward VII, George V, the Jews, the Freemasons, his former ministers and military commanders – in short, everyone but himself. He experienced the disaster of his reign as a personal injury, maliciously inflicted by others. He learned nothing from it all and he stayed angry for the rest of his life.

In this, Donald Trump will surely follow the kaiser, whether he makes it to the White House or not.

Christopher Clark is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and the author of “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (Penguin)

Andrew Preston is a professor of American history at Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage