Show Hide image

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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

Show Hide image

No one knows what they're doing in Syria - but standing back is not an option

Ultimately this is a question about the world in which we want to live.

The essential truth about Syria is that no one apart from Iran knows what they are doing. This isn’t an admission of incompetence. It is a recognition that there are so many different actors in the conflict, so many moving parts to any solution, and so many different linkages with other conflicts and sociopolitical challenges in the wider region, and that so much stuff just happens (such as the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane) that it is impossible to construct a line of argument that has conclusively persuasive evidential or empirical support. To put it another way, you can argue from similar premises to a range of different conclusions.

So some will say that we should steer well clear. This conflict is essentially a civil war and can be resolved only by fighters on the ground. We need to watch and wait – rather as Israel (for instance) is presumed to be ­doing. Others say it might be a civil war but it also has significant transnational dimensions, both ideologically through the Islamist International and materially through the actions of those states that sponsor certain actors, ranging from the Shia militias that fight alongside Bashar al-Assad to the various Sunni militias that fight Assad, Hezbollah and Iran as well as, frequently, each other. We should therefore seek to shape the outcome by judicious intervention on the side of those groups that we wish to have a decisive say in the political aftermath. Still others say that we should seek primarily to destroy Islamic State – Da’esh – and if this entails a pragmatic alliance with Assad and Iran, that is the price we need to pay. Others protest that this will merely bolster the recruiting power of Da’esh and its Sunni jihadi Islamist analogues. We need instead to focus on containing them and making the removal of Assad and the political reconstruction of Syria a priority: Da’esh will only be defeated ideologically by a new, more stable and inclusive political dispensation, in Iraq as much as Syria.

The truth is that there is something to be said for each of these positions. So, how do we determine what combination of actions makes for the best policy response by the UK and other western governments, particularly after the Paris attacks and with clear evidence that the terror threat Da’esh poses to western societies is increasing?

Part of this is about our own safety – but only part. There is no simple correlation between our actions overseas and our domestic security: Islamic Jihad didn’t slaughter Swiss tourists in the Valley of the Kings in 1997, Jemaah Islamiya blow up churches across Indonesia in 2000 and bars in Bali in 2002, nor Omar Abdel-Rahman try to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, al-Qaeda the Strasbourg Cathedral Christmas market in 2000 and Fatah al-Islam regional trains in Germany in 2006 because the West had invaded Iraq. The ideology that drove them and drives others is not merely one of local grievance: it is a self-reinforcing and totalising ideology of domination from which retreat does not buy immunity.

Ultimately this is a question about the world in which we want to live. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of the pillars of Nato and a large EU member state, the United Kingdom cannot avoid it. The outcome in Syria matters to us. The outcome mattered to us in Iraq and Libya, too. In Iraq we helped let the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Iranian backers steal the 2010 elections. In Libya we helped remove Gaddafi and created the space for electoral politics, only to stand back when armed Islamist groups held a gun to the head of the state after they failed in successive elections to gain the power they thought of as their right.

So, we need to think hard about what sort of political outcome we want to see in Syria. This is a matter of the national interest. It would have been better for us if Iyad Allawi had become prime minister of Iraq in 2010 or if the National Forces Alliance (NFA) had formed a government in Libya in 2012. It would probably have been better for Iraq and Libya, too.

Allawi, a secular Shia leading a largely Sunni national alliance, was consistently the most popular politician in Iraq throughout 2010, and the NFA won a plurality of seats in 2012. Adopting a policy that leads us to acquiesce in an Islamist takeover of Syria because they are the ones with guns would be foolish – in terms of our own interests and those of most Syrians alike. All the electoral and polling evidence in the Middle East since 2010 suggests that most people there, like anywhere else, want a government that delivers material improvements in their daily lives. The failure to do so was one of the main contributory factors to the collapse in popularity of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt between 2011 and 2013. We need to remember that Assad retains support among significant sections of the Syrian population, not just Alawites but also non-Islamist Sunnis, Christians and Druze, who all fear an Islamist takeover.

No Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus is likely to be stable: Hezbollah will not accept it and neither will Iran. Russia’s position is more ambiguous but I find it inconceivable that Moscow would acquiesce in the overthrow of Assad by jihadi groups. And, in the end, these groups will fight each other for the spoils. This includes those groups with a significant Muslim Brotherhood component, such as Ahrar al-Sham. There is no evidence that Da’esh is supported by any significant outside power, though in the early days of the conflict jihadi groups attracted a lot of private funding, channelled mainly through Qatar and Kuwait. Some of these other groups will continue to be supported by some Gulf states, however, especially if the Assad regime and its backers show no appetite for compromise. We need to be clear what we think of this: in the end, a secular dispensation in Syria – with political room for various actors – is best.

That does not mean Assad is the answer in Syria, any more than Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister from 2006 to 2014, was the answer in Iraq. Like Maliki, Assad bears a heavy responsibility for creating the polarised disaster in his country. He transformed a contest characterised initially by peaceful demonstrations into a brutally sectarian and now regionalised civil conflict.

In any case, Assad cannot defeat his enemies. He has become one warlord among many and controls only a fraction of Syrian territory. The reason the Iranians and Russians need him is that he represents the bogus legitimacy they both require in order to claim to be bolstering a stable state order against brutal Islamist chaos. Even with their support, with air campaigns by the US-led coalition and by the Russians against wildly different targets, and with a renewed push in the north-east led by Kurdish forces, Assad’s troops have been able in recent weeks to make only minimal progress against the armed opposition (and have not significantly targeted Da’esh).

Yet what the Russian intervention and the sustained Iranian military support for Assad have shown is that the precondition for a role in the final shaping of Syria is a willingness to shape the military conflict. You might not win. But you can stop your client losing. And this gives you influence when it comes to taking decisions both about how the battle is fought and about how it ends.



Standing back because you think any conceivable alternative plan you have seen is mumbo-jumbo is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-righteousness is not a satisfactory substitute for action. And if you really want to act, you can’t just do it from the air. You need ground forces whom you can call your own. They may not need to be your own citizens but they need to be effective and willing to co-ordinate with you. Assad has Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shia militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, all sufficiently co-ordinated with enough unity of command to fight effectively in a sustained manner. If we wish to shape the outcome we need to be just as effective at command, control and execution, and support those groups that are willing to contribute to what we would see as a satisfactory outcome.

That requires the US to play a stronger convening and co-ordinating role. You don’t need the 101st Airborne Division or the US marines – or 2 PARA – to do the ground combat. But you do need proper command of the battle space, better air-to-ground co-ordination, more effective operational intelligence, better targeting capacity, a higher intensity of air strikes, greater interdiction of Da’esh’s sources of funding, including oil, and an ability to respond rapidly to its activity across not just Syria but also Iraq. The two theatres go together.

And the reason for all this is that such action is the essential underpinning for the politics. That was the great lesson of the US-led “surge” in Iraq between 2007 and 2008. You have to do everything well at the same time, not assume that piecemeal military or political activity will allow us to come back in the future to do stuff we wish we could do now but don’t have the capacity, the will or the support to execute at the moment.

The primary target is Da’esh. There are signs that it is containable in certain areas of Iraq and Syria (as it was in Derna in Libya) by elements of the armed opposition, the Kurds, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Iraqi national security forces and a more cohesive Russo-Iranian effort. Hitting Da’esh harder is a test of the Russian claim to be on the same side as we are.

Yet containment within these theatres does not mean containment globally. The attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad were responses to this, as Da’esh has in the past responded to setbacks in Tikrit and Kobane, for example, by switching the point of attack rapidly to other military targets. The group is highly adaptive and has now become adaptive internationally.

Defeating Da’esh demands dealing with it in Iraq and Syria but also in Libya and, in terms of our domestic security arrangements, in Europe and the US. This demands greater co-ordination between national security agencies and military staffs, as well as those agencies and institutions tasked with meeting the longer-term and more complex ideational challenges.

This will all require domestic political consent, as we saw with the failed Commons vote on Syrian strikes in August 2013. Last week’s parliamentary debate was, in its way, rather impressive. The Prime Minister’s official response to the foreign affairs select committee report on British military operations in Syria is also a more sober assessment than some dossiers we have seen. However, it still can’t help making judgements on inevitably limited evidence. The claim that there are 70,000 non-extremist opposition fighters on the ground may well be true, though I do not know what it tells us about their likely future behaviour, given the particularly dense fog of this war. But there are signs that, in spite of the divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party, consent is at last emerging across political divides and will manifest itself in any free vote.

The Prime Minister is correct to see the construction of an alliance of the politically willing inside this country as the precursor to our greater involvement in a coalition of the militarily willing. This effort needs to be sustained: consent can erode rapidly.

In the end, when we reach the moment at which a political settlement becomes possible, we must be ready to seize it. The Syria peace talks in Vienna – where Iran and Saudi Arabia are at last sitting together as they did not in Geneva – may offer a path to a settlement. I hope it does: otherwise, what we will have once again is process disguised as strategy.

Given the proximity of the Middle East (notably the Levant and Libya) to Europe and the calamity that refugee and other migrations represent for the EU and the region, this is Europe’s problem as much as the US’s or Russia’s. That is a good argument for Britain remaining a core member of the EU’s foreign policy and defence structures. It is also a good argument for the British and the French to continue to work closely together in these areas and guide Europe as we collectively seek to come to terms with the generational challenge that the collapse of parts of the state system in the Middle East and North Africa poses to European security.

This can only be done nationally, just as the Middle East can only be rebuilt on the basis of the existing state system, the most operative parts of which remain the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. These states, in the end, need to be the ultimate guarantors of any new political settlement reached in the Levant, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, even if that ends up as a form of confederation. Better a guaranteed federalism than an uninsured fragmentation.

That was one lesson of the Taif Agreement of 1989, deeply flawed as it was. It ended a civil war in Lebanon but cemented a sectarian carve-up and legitimised the role of a single militia, Hezbollah, within a single state that, in effect, it then colonised. Stopping militias from continuing to colonise other states, as we have seen them ­doing in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, is a precondition for stable statehood.


We are witnessing the fifth great refugee wave in the region: Palestinian in 1948, 1967 and 1991, Iraqi after 2003, and now Syrian and again Iraqi. Most of these refugees have not returned home. Ethnic cleansing and resettlements have been widespread features of life in the Middle East for decades. What Syria and Iraq have shown is that there is no exceptionalism in Middle Eastern politics.

An Iraqi friend of mine from Ramadi has over 40 relatives living in his four-bedroom house in Baghdad. They are the ones who could get through the Baghdad belts into the city. Displacement breeds violence. As we stand, anywhere between a third and half of Syria’s pre-war population of roughly 22 million has fled. People continue to do so. Most of those who leave are those with some education and money. Their help will be needed if ever we get to the stage of reconstruction.

In the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the refugee burden is huge – and is profoundly changing the sectarian demographics. That makes the argument about the apparent reluctance of the Gulf states to take in Syrian refugees academic: demographics are politics and in the real world no Gulf state wants its still delicate demographic balance significantly altered. Nor do Jordan and Lebanon (unless you happen to be Sunni). It is also a huge problem for Europe. The answer is not resettlement: it is an end to conflict and a programme of return.

The challenge of Iran will remain, whatever happens in Syria. Those who argue that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme will change the Islamic Republic are whistling in the dark. The one thing about which Iran’s leaders agree is that the revolution abides. So we shall face this challenge again and again and need to remain resolute in meeting it. There is no grand bargain to be had.

Finally, the crises in the Middle East are not simply external. They are now part of our domestic security. If we abandon this fight to others, we are outsourcing our national security. If the United States feels that it cannot or will not any longer act as a unilateralist hyperpower, then it still needs to act as a hegemonic convener of the like-minded. No one else can. And the UK needs to regain its internationalism. If we stand back, it does not mean we are disengaged from the common effort. It means we are irrelevant.

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London. He is now executive director (Middle East) of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is based in Bahrain

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war