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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

Hilary Benn and others were acclaimed for their speeches in the Syria debate in the Commons. But if this was the House at its best, its best is not good enough.

When, after almost 11 hours of debate on 2 December, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, stood up to say that Hilary Benn’s argument for intervention in Syria would “go down as one of the truly great speeches made in the House of Commons”, few inside or outside the chamber disagreed. Asa Bennett in the Telegraph wrote that Benn had shown “a tenacious grasp of detail in his forensic analysis”, while Martin Kettle in the Guardian called his speech “politically elevating”.

It was not the only acclaimed intervention. Lord Harries praised the “excellent debates”, which had been “at once deeply felt and serious and informed and rational”. Benn said, “We have heard a number of outstanding speeches”; Hammond, too, announced that they had “done justice to the gravity of the subject”. Then, using one of the oldest clichés in politics, the Foreign Secretary added: “Today we saw the House at its best.”

If that was the House at its best, then its best is not nearly good enough. There were a few good interventions but, on the whole, the standard of debate was low, with some of the highest praise reserved for the especially poor performances.

The word “forensic” was used a lot by commentators and MPs but if you take an intellectual scalpel to Benn’s speech, for instance – the supposed highlight of the day – little stands up to scrutiny. Its impact owed more to its bold and direct challenge to Benn’s party leader than to its intellectual content. It serves as a case study on how weak arguments and misleading rhetoric can move and persuade a rationally illiterate parliament and people.

To say that the arguments were poor is not just another way of saying that I did not buy their conclusions. A good argument presents a case that demands a careful response, whether you ultimately accept it or not. A bad one commits an error or deploys a fallacy so obvious that the only response it requires is to point out the fundamental flaw in the reasoning. Benn’s arguments were almost all of this latter kind.

One of the most common features of a poor argument is that it fails to address the core issue, either missing the point or attacking a straw man. Take Benn’s argument that the UN Security Council Resolution 2249 is “asking us to do something, it is asking us to do something now, it is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq”. Given this, he asked, “Why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region, including from Iraq?” Even setting aside the significant but generally unnoticed slide from the recent view of the 15 members of the UN Security Council to the “settled will of the United Nations”, this argument misses the point. The main question for all but a handful of pacifists is not whether it would be good to do something but whether something good can actually be done.

The UN Security Council called for nations “to take all necessary measures” but a measure can only be necessary if it is effective. That was what opponents of the motion doubted and nothing that Benn said about the UN addressed that. Too often, MPs spoke as if the issue at stake were one of high principle, when for most the nub of the issue was the evidence for the efficacy of the proposed actions.

Benn repeatedly used the tactic of asking rhetorical questions along the lines of: “Can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in self-defence against those who are planning these attacks?” That takes for granted both that acting would be effective self-defence and that the alternative to the proposed action was merely “stepping aside”. “Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security?” he asked, which presupposes that other western powers are indeed defending us by their actions, when many believe that they are doing no such thing. “Should we not play our full part?” he asked, assuming that extending our role is playing a “full part”, rather than simply playing a wrong part.

On top of all that, Benn resorted to the cheap claim that failing to act would send the wrong message to our friends and allies. That’s an argument used to decry sex education, for fear that it would send the message that children should be sexually active; or to deny people the right to choose the time and manner of their own deaths, for fear of sending the message that the weak and ill are of less value. Whenever such arguments are used, it is almost always the case that there is no necessary link between the proposed action and the dreaded message. What message is sent depends on how things are done, not just whether they are done. Britain could have refused to take part in air strikes in Syria, offering instead a metaphorical V-sign to its allies or trying as hard as it can to counter the threat of Isis in other ways.

My list of Benn’s fallacies is not yet exhausted but there is a more serious issue here than the failings of one politician who did better than most. Other widely praised speeches were much worse, most notably Margaret Beckett’s. Even a sixth-form student of critical thinking would spot the false choice that she offered opponents in her question, “Should we take no further action against Da’esh, who are themselves killing innocent people and striving to kill more every day of the week? Or should we simply leave it to others?” – as though air strikes were the only thing that western powers could do.

This use of false dichotomies was characteristic of the whole debate. It took Labour’s Chi Onwurah to point out, “The Prime Minister spoke often of the choice between action and inaction but those of us who will be voting against the air strikes also want to see action . . . cutting off the financial supplies to Da’esh that buy the bombs and help to radicalise recruits.”

Like Benn, Beckett also offered several false analogies, pointing to the efficacy of bombing in Kosovo, Kobane and Sierra Leone, when circumstances were very different in each case and are not comparable to the situation in Syria today.

Although I have focused on two pro-bombing speeches, what concerns me here is not which side was right but the quality of the debate. It is possible to have poor arguments for the right conclusion. That there were more bad speeches on the pro-intervention side merely reveals that the onus was on supporters of air strikes to come up with arguments that answered the concern that they would cause more harm than good.

 

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The poor standard of debate in our nation’s most important political chamber reflects the broader parlous state of the art of rhetoric. Rhetoric has gained something of a bad name, being associated with the use of words to persuade, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the conclusion that this persuasion aims at. It doesn’t help that the word “persuasion” is now associated primarily with advertising, marketing and spin, the modern dark arts that seek to bend us to others’ will.

In its original sense, however, rhetoric, properly used, was a respectable skill. Aristotle wrote the first major treatise on the subject, in which he distinguished between three kinds of persuasion. The first was rooted in ethos (character). “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible,” he wrote. “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others.” Benn exudes ethos – he is admired by all parties as a man of integrity and principle. It is notable that several of the other most rated speakers were elder statesmen and stateswomen respected for long service: Gerald Kaufman, Alex Salmond, Margaret Beckett, Alan Johnson. Aristotle would not have been surprised that these were among the most convincing in the debate.

The second form of persuasion uses pathos (emotion). This we saw in spades, with many referring to the “impassioned” nature of the debate, as though that were clearly a good thing. The widespread use of “Da’esh” was emotive – those speaking used the term, which Isis is known to dislike, in order to belittle it. Benn pulled many emotional strings, most obviously when he listed the various atrocities committed by Isis and concluded, “If it had happened here, they could have been our children.”

This is very effective but it does not address the central issue, which is what we can effectively do about it. There was also a dash of pathos in his concluding appeal to Labour’s historical internationalism, an attempt to stir an elevated feeling of universal benevolence. But this, too, lacked substance, since being in favour of internationalism does not entail supporting all international interventions.

The final element of the rhetorical triad is logos (reason). Contemporary rhetoric is good at harnessing the power of personality and emotion but has very little skill in reasoning. For Aristotle, however, this was a crucial part of the mix. A person in command of the means of persuasion “must, it is clear, be able to reason logically, to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and to understand the emotions”. Without logos, rhetoric becomes mere oratory, which is precisely what Benn’s speech was: an impressive oral performance but not one that displayed the virtues of good reasoning.

Today, logos is very much the junior member of the rhetorical club. The poverty of logos in parliament reflects the poverty of logos in society. Our culture values emotion and authenticity above logic and rationality. It is perhaps telling that there is a thriving all-party parliamentary group for mindfulness but not one for philosophy.

Champions of logos have been lamenting for decades that we don’t spend enough time teaching children to think. Instead, we coach them to pass examinations. Universities, independent schools and some aspiring state ones maintain the tradition of debating societies but I have never been convinced that these nurture good thinking skills. Debating rewards the clever, the quick-witted, the charismatic. Success is measured by the number of ayes you receive at the end, not on the quality of your arguments. Parliament, especially during Prime Minister’s Questions, often resembles one of these undergraduate debates, in which discussion is a kind of competitive sport rather than a serious attempt to arrive at the truth.

Not only do we not teach people to think, we also seem to have lost faith in the power and value of reason. The cognoscenti know that we are ruled by our hearts, not our brains, or rather that our brains are emotional machines, not logical engines. These cynics point to work by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has argued persuasively that the brain uses two different systems. System one is fast, automatic, emotional, subconscious and “hot”. System two is the slow, painstaking, calculating, conscious, “cold” mind praised by philosophers. The problem is that system one does most of the work and much of what system two does is simply to provide rationalisations for what system one has already decided. On this view, Aristotle only gave ethos, pathos and logos equal esteem because he suffered from the typical philosopher’s bias of overestimating our rational capacities.

This is, however, a terrible misunderstanding of the truth that Kahneman has revealed. Proof of the error is that he has not persuaded anyone of the truth of his theories merely through his reputation and the use of emotional manipulation. He has shown it by evidence and argument, by careful steps of reasoning that lead you back to observations that are demonstrably true. Kahneman’s account of the power of pathos is, in reality, the perfect example of Aristotle’s logos. His theory “is persuasive and credible either because it is directly self-evident or because it appears to be proved from other statements that are so”.

 

***

 

It is true that we now know that, in practice, ethos and pathos are the automatic prime movers of persuasion. But we are not obliged always to follow our most immediate inclinations. Logos allows us to pause and examine arguments and to see if they stand up. If they don’t, we can reject them, no matter how much we may side with their proponents or want to agree with them.

It would be absurd to claim that the Syria debate was devoid of any rational argument. Benn offered two that require an answer and are not just fallacious. Against those who said that air strikes alone would not defeat Isis, he argued: “They make a difference, because they give it a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory.” You may or may not agree with this but it is correct that the statement “Air strikes cannot wipe out Isis” is not a sufficient argument against them, because to degrade the group’s capacity to launch attacks and train terrorists would be a clear benefit. This point requires a response.

Similarly, Benn argued that even if the number of ground troops capable of being supported by air strikes was low, “The longer we leave taking action, the longer Da’esh will have to decrease that number.” This, again, is a challenge that opponents of air strikes need to meet. If – and it is a big if – the alternative to air strikes is the gradual elimination of all moderate opposition forces in Syria, is it better to let that happen or take a last, perhaps desperate, chance to support them?

Every other point that Benn made, however, somehow missed the point or distorted it. Others made an even bigger mess of it. David Cameron’s low point came when he ruled out the use of ground troops because their presence “can be a radicalising force and can be counterproductive”. If this is true of ground troops, it is simply implausible that it is not also true of air strikes. In both cases, people know exactly who is firing the weapons. By what strange principle does he think that they bear grudges against infantry but not pilots? Cameron’s logic could so obviously and easily have been turned against him and yet no one in the chamber picked him up on this.

Aristotle argued that however an argument is constructed, it is “persuasive because there is somebody whom it persuades”. Our problem today is that too many arguments that ought not to be persuasive nonetheless are. The only antidote to this is to strengthen our powers of reasoning, and rhetoric should be put back on the curriculum.

Julian Baggini’s most recent book is Freedom Regained (Granta)

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires