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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES
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The Germany Crisis: Angela Merkel, refugees and the rise of the right

How Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis emboldened the far right and led to troubling questions about her future as chancellor.

For Michael Rusheinsky, it all started in August 2015. Huge numbers of refugees were arriving. It was 35 degrees in the shade. There was no water. No food. No medical support. This was central Berlin – but it looked to him like Kabul. “There were volunteers from Doctors Without Borders who have worked in Gaza and Afghanistan but these were the worst conditions they have ever had to deal with,” he told me.

Rusheinsky was a jobbing actor at the time, but soon became a professional refugee handler, co-ordinating volunteers at the main reception centre in the German capital. He is a manifestation of what the tabloid Bild called “Helles Deutschland” – a light and moral Germany; yet as the country prepares for regional elections on 13 March, it is “Dunkles [‘dark’] Deutschland” that is capturing the headlines.

Most prominent is the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which is using the dislocation caused by the refugee crisis to shake up the German political scene. Not only is the AfD – Germany’s equivalent of Ukip – likely to pass the 5 per cent threshold for entering parliaments in all three states that are holding elections, it threatens to push the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) into fourth place in Saxony-Anhalt and may get into double digits into Rhineland Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. If it succeeds, it will break one of the cast-iron rules of postwar German politics – that no party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) grouping should be allowed into the legislature.

The rise of the AfD is the most marked sign of the fraying of the Merkel supremacy. The party was founded in 2013, its name a response to the German chancellor’s frequent claims that there is no alternative to her policy on the euro (her favourite term for this, “alternativlos”, was elected Unwort des Jahres, “non-word of the year”, in 2010, at the height of her powers).

The novelty of the AfD, when it was launched by the economics professor Bernd Lucke and other activists, was that it was a bourgeois, right-wing party that was going to great lengths to disavow the neo-Nazi street. Lucke and the leadership went through all the applications to join the party and excluded anyone with negative associations. The result of this triage was that so many of its first official supporters had postgraduate degrees that the AfD was nicknamed “the professors’ party”. Its anti-euro stance (the founders wanted to split the euro into a northern European “neuro” and a southern “seuro”) helped it to take seven seats in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, but it had failed to win enough votes the previous year to enter the federal Bundestag.

Then in 2015, encouraged by Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, 1.1 million asylum-seekers arrived in Germany. The resulting refugee crisis has afforded the AfD a second chance. After a period of infighting, the party transformed itself into a more run-of-the-mill, populist, right-wing party. Lucke left in 2015 to found the Alliance for Progress and Departure, following the failure of his attempt to become the AfD’s sole leader. The more strident Frauke Petry – a self-made businesswoman from eastern Germany – emerged as the AfD’s main spokesperson, and was soon joined as co-leader by Jörg Meuthen, another professor of economics, from the west. Petry has succeeded in shifting the party to the right, concentrating less on the euro and more on issues such as migration, Islam and closer ties with Russia. This led a bitter Lucke to claim in July 2015 that the AfD was turning into a “PEGIDA party”, a reference to Germany’s far-right movement of “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”, a label he had refuted as party leader.

***

What is interesting about the AfD is what it tells us about the changes afoot in Germany. Its rise is a product of the constrained and elitist nature of German politics, in which – after the experience of Nazism – many subjects are declared to be outside the realm of political competition. All the mainstream parties are in favour of EU membership, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism.

What this leaves is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – as in the decision to replace the popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro in 1999. But those who dare to cross the threshold of political correctness tap in to a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow. A CSU minister recently told me that the German debate on refugees reminded him of the old East Germany, where there was a fundamental disconnection between what people thought and what they thought was acceptable to say in public. According to a recent poll, nearly half of all Germans are afraid to voice their opinion about the refugee crisis.

Today in Germany, ever greater numbers claim that they are unrepresented in the media and in politics. They claim the refugee crisis is leading to a clash of civilisations between the political and journalistic elites, on the one hand, and the (allegedly) censored, disenfranchised “masses” on the other, who express their discontent by appropriating the anti-Berlin Wall cry “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”).

The AfD is making great play of standing up for two different groups that feel disenfranchised in Germany, still largely separated between east and west. In the east, the core audience is the young, white losers of globalisation who cannot find jobs or companions. In the west, it is more the educated middle class that supports the AfD. These western supporters are often not anti-immigration per se, but see the refugee crisis as proof of a loss of control by the state. A study by the Otto Brenner Stiftung, a Frankfurt-based research foundation, shows that the AfD, with its two very different leaders in Petry and Meuthen, is using separate strategies for the east and west of the country, a tactic that seems to be working: the party is polling at 11 per cent in the west and 14 per cent in the east. In the west the party tries to portray itself as a moderate and educated option for the middle class, while in the east it is unashamedly populist.

The common thread behind the two groups is frustration with the political class. In fact, the word most often invoked in ­discussing the AfD is “Wut” – a visceral expression probably best translated as “rage”. The newspapers are full of talk about die Wutbürger, or enraged citizens, and the media have characterised one of the party’s key figures, Marc Jongen, a professor of philosophy at the small University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, as the Wutdenker: the “philosopher of rage”. Jongen is the AfD vice-chairman in Baden-Württemberg, one of the three states that will be holding elections this month. He has played up to the image of philosopher-king, writing an intellectual manifesto for the party which talks about the AfD as a spectre haunting the German establishment and which – he claims – is opposed by the country’s elites, from the Catholic Church to the chancellor and the president.

***

The 13 March elections in the three states are being presented as a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policy. A recent poll showed that 81 per cent of German citizens believe her government has lost control of the crisis. There is still significant support for the Wilkommenskultur, as shown by the actor-turned-refugee-helper Michael Rusheinsky, and encapsulated in Merkel’s many statements that the welcoming reaction of many citizens around Germany shows the greatness of the country and its people. But the way the crisis has been handled goes against the trinity of order, predictability and balanced budgets that has defined the Federal Republic of Germany.

And yet Merkel is sticking firm to her refusal to close the borders and set a limit for inward migration. “I have no plan B,” she said last Sunday. “There’s no sense in working on two [plans] at the same time.” Many people have been puzzled by the way that this most pragmatic of politicians appears to have found an ideological core. Some claim that it is a product of her biography: with her background in East Germany, she does not want to be the chancellor who presides over the erection of new walls in Europe.

Others even see her predicament as a function of her pragmatism and scientific rationalism. She did not precipitate the crisis; she did not issue any pronouncements until huge numbers were already flowing into Germany, and then she simply described the status quo. Now that the crisis is here she refuses to sign up to ideas – such as a cap on refugee numbers – that will make no difference to the situation and will set her  on a slippery slope to closing the borders.

Whatever the reasoning, this stance has changed her role for ever. The über-realist, who never seemed much out of step with public opinion, has set herself down a path that many of her countrymen – as well as other countries in Europe – refuse to follow.

The consequences for the European Union could be even more drastic than those for Germany. Over the past five years, as Brussels lost the ability to lead a plethora of crises and to create trade-offs across different policy areas, Germany – and Merkel in particular – became the essential glue in a new, intergovernmental Europe on every issue from the euro and Ukraine to the British Question and the refugee crisis.

Yet the paradox of German power is that the more it has been exercised, the less it is desired and obeyed. From Paris and Rome to Budapest and Warsaw, there are complaints that the nature of German leadership is changing, and that the Germans are behaving in an increasingly hegemonic way to deal with a refugee crisis that many argue they have brought upon themselves.

The way Berlin has pushed through the relocation of refugees against the EU consensus – with quotas of refugees for all member states – has dealt a blow to German soft power. And the way member states that signed up to these have got away without implementing them has damaged Germany’s hard power. We are seeing a political geography emerging in Europe characterised by unilateral action and coalitions of the willing, rather than common action agreed in Brussels. There is a continent-sized gulf between rational ideas about European action and national politics in the EU 28.

So, will the regional elections end the Merkel era? For months already, members of the German elite have been talking about her in the way Tory MPs talked about Margaret Thatcher during the poll-tax riots: as if she had lost her grip on reality and her ability to adapt to circumstances. In December, I had lunch with a group that included a prominent businessman, a national newspaper editor and a couple of CDU politicians. Even before the drinks arrived, they began playing the parlour game of the moment: imagining alternatives to Merkel.

The discussion started by thinking about trigger points for her ejection or voluntary departure (there has been speculation that she might go to New York to become the next UN secretary general). Then there was talk about the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, her only possible successor in the short term, and questions about his health, the policy options open to him, plus the fear that the SPD would not accept him and would call an election. In fact, the CDU/SPD grand coalition, which enjoys a super-majority in the Bundestag, has helped Merkel hang on to power, because it gives the SPD a de facto veto on her successor. A close associate of hers thinks she will use this electoral arithmetic to cling on to power: “It is almost impossible to dislodge a sitting chancellor, so they will have to pull her out of the chancellery by the hair.”

When pundits envisage the longer term they can think of options for political renewal – including the rising star of Merkel’s party, Julia Klöckner – but there is a familiar structure to the conversations, as in the one in which I took part, about the short term. Nobody feels that the status quo can hold, yet no one can see how to change it. And so our debate, like many others, foundered on the central problem of contemporary German politics. For now, whatever Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen would like to believe, there is no alternative.

Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis