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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

RALPH STEADMAN FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The American berserk

The rise of Donald Trump is a symptom of the decay of a great but exceptionally unhappy nation.

To be at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August 2008 was a little like attending a religious revivalist meeting. Nearly eight years of George W Bush and his toxic friends – the Cheneys and Rumsfelds who dragged America’s international reputation below even where it had been in the depths of the Vietnam War – had left Americans humiliated and baying for something better. In Barack Obama they seemed to have found it, with the added bonus, over 40 years after the civil rights movement supposedly achieved its aims, of proving that one no longer needed to be a white man to lead the most powerful nation on Earth. It was a new dawn: but the day has not been quite so sunlit as was hoped.

In America last week I encountered one person after another who, to different degrees and using different means of expression, had had enough. It appears to be an exceptionally unhappy country: polarised, introspective, angry, disappointed and, above all, fearful. We have seen many representations and manifestations of American angst and rage in recent years: the horrific and depressingly frequent shootings in schools, racially motivated attacks, powder kegs in cities which ignite in confrontations between the police and minorities. Yet all of these, however pernicious, are largely transient for those not directly involved. The sense of grievance dominating this year’s presidential election campaign has cooked more slowly, is more deep-seated, and will require more than simply a new president – of whatever stamp – to appease it.

As far as Americans are concerned, some of the disappointment with the Obama administration must be considered self-inflicted: they have elected a Republican-dominated Congress that has thwarted much of what he sought to do. Yet Obama, too, must bear some blame. His inexperience – he was a one-term senator before securing his party’s nomination eight years ago – has hindered him, in his handling of Congress and of issues alike. His attempt to reform health care met difficulties of implementation unconnected with the visceral opposition of Republicans and, indeed, of some Democrats. His elevated rhetoric has too often preceded a lower reality.

He is perceived to have disengaged from a world in which many Americans of all political persuasions feel their country’s influence could once more be beneficial, if asserted sensibly. But, above all, the Obama years have done little to improve the struggle of tens of millions of Americans who live at a crushing level of poverty and amid a dereliction that shocks many western Europeans who see it.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a country defined by its ability to create opportunity and provide success should, at some point, pause for breath, take stock and ­allow doubt to seep in; and it is right that the foreign policy disasters of the Bush years should cause it to reflect deeply before engaging with the world. But all this has sapped national self-confidence and verve, creating negativity that seeks, and finds, expression in the election campaign and which all the candidates, in their various ways, are trying to reflect or exploit. The mood threatens fundamentally to change America’s politics.

It is hard to believe that in any other ­contest since the civil war, such an outsider as Donald Trump, who has never served in the military or held political office, would have neared the point of securing the nomination of a major political party – and, if he does, that he would have more of a prospect than many would like to imagine of securing the presidency, and with it the so-called leadership of the free world.

That Trump seems to have said things in private which contradict what he has said in public may be reassuring as far as his ­perceived extremism goes, but it says little for his honesty. He refuses to publish his tax returns, which raises questions about his financial probity, already under the spotlight because of the fiasco of the erstwhile Trump University, where students have parted with sums in excess of $40,000 in return for worthless qualifications. There is also speculation that he refuses to publish his returns because he has exaggerated his charitable donations.

More worrying is Trump’s foreign policy, and his access to the nuclear button. The effect on the Middle East of implementing his belligerent ideas for dealing with Isis can only be a matter of anxious conjecture; as must be his potential relations with his fellow narcissist and megalomaniac Vladimir Putin.

However, America’s current state of mind and sense of betrayal by mainstream politicians also account for the enthusiasm shown for the attempt by Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist from Vermont, to wrest the Democratic Party’s nomination from Hillary Clinton. Any attempt to equate Sanders with Jeremy Corbyn flatters Corbyn: Sanders is more eloquent, more thoughtful, and infinitely more credible. He looks unlikely to succeed, but his support among younger voters especially demonstrates the growing sense of a need among Americans, as they look ahead, to break a cycle of disappointment and failure. It is interesting that one important part of the senator’s platform – the anathematising of free trade – coincides with an obsession of Trump’s: a political analyst told me he would not be at all surprised if some of Sanders’s supporters voted Trump in the event of Sanders not winning the Democratic nomination.

“After all,” he said, without a trace of humour, “they’re both Democrats.”

***

Donald Trump’s success seems to rest on two things: his populist appeal, which includes a nod to the xenophobia of America’s less educated masses and plays to their fears more generally, and the fact that although he has dabbled in politics for many years (he donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, like any good Democrat), he is not a politician. Bernie Sanders shares that with him: although a long-term congressman, he is hardly of the political class as Americans understand it.

As in Britain, it is common and easy in America today to view the political class with contempt. But that has long been the case – covering Bob Dole’s failed campaign to beat Bill Clinton 20 years ago I saw a T-shirt that proclaimed “Death Is No Excuse: Nixon in ’96”. Now, however, the sense of contempt has reached crisis point.

Recent research shows that there has been no improvement in the real wages of working-class and lower-middle-class Americans since the late 1970s; they are below what they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. America is a country of astonishing wealth, but this is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group among its population of nearly 325 million. Park Avenue and Rodeo Drive are very much the exceptions, not the rule. In New York there seem to be more homeless people on the streets than I remember seeing since the late 1980s. There are large industrial wastelands around many of America’s cities: much has been written about how huge areas of Detroit have been put back to grass, but dereliction afflicts substantial parts of many cities. The country has over $19trn of public debt, and it is hard to see where all the cash is going, other than, as one disaffected Democrat told me, “on the military”. The US spends roughly $598bn a year on defence (3.3 per cent of its GDP in 2015), four times as much as China (1.2 per cent of its GDP last year), seven times as much as Saudi Arabia (12.9 per cent) and ten and a half times as much as the UK (2 per cent).

Other measures of living standards are telling. The 2012 census found that 48 million Americans, or 15.4 per cent of the population, were uninsured for health care. Levels of achievement for school-leavers are lower than in most developed countries, and a lower proportion of Americans graduates from higher education than in comparable nations. Perhaps it is an indication of the national unhappiness, as well as low income, that medical surveys report that 17 per cent of children are obese and 32 per cent overweight. Black and Hispanic students in the US rank the lowest in assessments for maths, science, reading and problem-solving, but American students overall rank poorly internationally. The US is one of only three OECD countries (the other two are Turkey and Israel) that spends more on schools in rich areas than in poor ones.

Housing is the most obvious sign of poverty and decay. In 2013, the government’s department of housing and urban development reported that the average annual income for a resident of a public housing project was $13,370. The proportion of people renting rather than owning is increasing, driving up rents. The level of home ownership is below where it was when Bill Clinton launched a national drive to encourage ownership in the late 1990s, and thanks not least to the effects of the sub-prime crisis related to that policy. Evictions, especially of black and Hispanic families, are on the rise and in many towns the evictions industry – bailiffs, removal men, lawyers – is a major employer. In New York, New Jersey and California, 22 per cent of households spend more than 50 per cent of their pre-tax income on housing. With many people all over the country unable to afford either to rent or to buy, the number of 25-year-olds living with their parents is also rising.

Even travelling around a city as affluent as New York, you see the signs of decay everywhere. A colleague told me of the rats she sees in the street on her way to and from work. The subway stations are dirty and basic. The roads are potholed and infrastructure generally is creaking: the lack, for instance, of a modern public transport link between the city and its main international airport, JFK, is absurd. Many buildings, even in Manhattan, show want of repair. Utilities run inefficiently: a friend’s cooking gas supply in the East Village failed last September and has only just been fixed. The signs of extreme affluence and modernity are ubiquitous, too, which only makes the portents of a decaying civilisation more disturbing.

***

The widespread poverty is demoralising enough for Americans to witness, but the prevailing mood is driven by something less tangible, and that is fear. As Trump’s remarkably successful campaign seems to have proved, many Americans are fearful of attack by Islamic extremists. His bizarre promise to ban Muslims from the United States may appear entirely ludicrous – and an alleged secret tape recording of him with editorial staff of the New York Times supposedly has him admitting it – yet it has scored a direct hit with millions of his fellow countrymen. So has his proposal to build a wall to stop illegal immigrants entering from Mexico, because so many people in that land of immigrants fear the effect of an unregulated wave of them. And, flowing from that, they fear further extension of those industrial wastelands, with their ruined factories and warehouses, because of the Chinese undercutting them, which is why they like Trump’s threat to provoke a suicidal trade war with China.

There is no simple reason for why things have gone so badly wrong. It is certainly not for want of good intentions. The practicalities of governing so vast a country to deliver standards of living expected in a developed Western nation, even under a federal system spread across 50 states, have perhaps become too much, and create huge scope for corruption and waste. I recall being told by a distinguished Washington journalist during the Clinton years that America was ungovernable and would have to split into four or five separate countries. There is still no sign of that, yet.

Automation threw millions of Americans out of manufacturing and into service industries, if they went into any work at all. The education system fails many of them. With 70 per cent still not holding a passport, their country remains one that understands less about the world than it ought, and learns few lessons from the rest of it. There are pockets of sweetness and light, yet much of America appears to be in a dark and recriminatory cul-de-sac. It sounded ridiculous for Hillary Clinton, on Super Tuesday, to call again for more “love and kindness” in America, but she had a point. It seems more the inclination of many Americans to look first for their enemies rather than their friends.

An American friend talked to me of his country having some sort of collective nervous breakdown. It is tempting to cite that to explain the rise of Donald Trump, but it would be wrong. Many Americans who would like him to win know exactly what they are doing, as do others who, in a different way, wish to break the system by choosing Bernie Sanders. There is a widespread view that the usual solutions will not suffice to put America back on track, and that without some degree of desperate measures the decline of America will become even steeper. The greatest fear of all seems to be fear of the future. 

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho