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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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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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The Brexit cowards: we left Europe, then they left us to it

On 23 June, Britain voted to “take back control”. Now we just need someone to take responsibility.

You break it, you own it. That’s the rule at Pottery Barn, an American high-end furniture chain store that has yet to cross the ­Atlantic. As far as the Brexit brigade is concerned, the idea hasn’t yet made the journey either.

In the fortnight since Britain voted to leave the European Union, the pound has fallen to a record low. The resulting bounce in the FTSE 100, trumpeted by the Leave side, is largely reflective of companies that hold their assets in currencies other than sterling. More worryingly, output in the construction industry fell at the fastest rate since 2009. In private discussions, at both the Treasury and the Bank of England, the question is not if there will be a recession, but how severe it will be when it comes.

So, where are the Brexiteers? There is plenty of smashed crockery on the floor and there will surely be more – yet the main players are edging away from the scene, eyes to the floor, mumbling their way past the cashiers and hoping someone else will pay for it. This “best of luck with it all, chaps” attitude was epitomised by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who tweeted on 25 June: “After campaigning solidly since December, I’m going to take a month off Twitter.” (He has since deleted the tweet, but returned to the social network six days later to suggest that the result was a victory for “the working classes against the smirking classes”.)

In the days since the vote for Brexit, two of the biggest beasts involved in the Leave campaigns, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have also stepped back from front-line politics. They leave behind little clarity on a range of urgent questions, such as the status of EU nationals already living in the UK; the willingness of voters to accept freedom of movement as the price of access to the single market; and exactly when Article 50 will be triggered, if it will be triggered at all. It is unclear even who will conduct trade negotiations on the UK’s behalf, because, in four decades of EU membership, the country has had little need for such bureaucrats and so it has retained few. (We might have to recruit staff from New Zealand.)

Nor have those ultimately responsible for the situation Britain finds itself in – the pro-Remain Tories, led by David Cameron and George Osborne, who agreed to the referendum to appease their own backbenchers – been any keener to own the outcome. Osborne was ridiculed for not emerging to make a speech or statement until Monday, 27 June. It brought to mind his old nickname: the Submarine.

Did it have to be like this? David Cameron hoped to be a second Harold Wilson: win a referendum to keep Britain in the EU and then retire in glory. His would-be successors hope to be another Harold Macmillan. Macmillan took power after Suez, a catastrophe that changed the direction of British foreign policy for a half-century. In the words of his biographer Anthony Sampson, Macmillan set about creating the impression that the crisis “had been a kind of victory, and that nothing much had happened”.

That was Johnson’s aim in his brief tilt at the Tory leadership. In his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column on 27 June, he set out his plan for a post-Brexit deal: Britain should stay in the single market, British workers should enjoy visa-free travel within the EU – but free movement to the UK from the European mainland should be restricted. To return to Pottery Barn for a moment, what Boris Johnson appeared to want was for the smashed bowl to reassemble itself and for him then to take it home for free. One civil servant derided his demands as “science fiction”.

Johnson’s creative writing assignment won him few friends, even within the ranks of those who had voted Leave. It contributed to Michael Gove’s decision to withdraw his support and launch his own campaign for the top job, bringing Johnson’s long-nurtured hopes of reaching Downing Street to an abrupt end. Not that retirement – at least for now – has led to much soul-searching on the part of the former mayor of London. On 4 July the Telegraph published another column by him, along with the front-page headline “Boris demands post-Brexit plan”. The counter-suggestion that Johnson, as Leave’s most popular advocate, was the one who ought to have had a plan, was too gauche for Westminster’s Brexit backers.

Not to be outdone, Farage, the other leading architect of the Leave vote, announced his resignation as leader of the UK Independence Party that same day. “During the referendum campaign I said I wanted my country back,” he declared, “[and] now I want my life back.” (Incidentally, the European Parliament also wants his £83,000-a-year salary – plus lavish expenses – back but he shows no sign of standing down as an MEP.)

The contest to replace Farage has turned into the polar opposite of a beauty contest. Ukip’s main donor, Arron Banks, who once described the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, as “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”, has expressed interest in becoming leader. So has Farage’s former aide Raheem Kassam, who edits the London outpost of Breitbart, a right-wing website that makes Fox News seem like a cool blast of sanity.

That’s if Farage does not rise again. He has form as far as temporary resignations go. He stepped down as leader in 2009, only to take the reins again after Ukip’s disappointing showing in the 2010 general election. Five years later, after Ukip racked up four million votes but secured just one seat in parliament, he resigned again, having failed to win Thanet South. That resignation lasted just four days, and he returned to take swift revenge on those of his opponents in Ukip who had foolishly believed it was now safe to speak ill of the (politically) dead.

This time, Farage has assured allies, it’s for real. In part, that is because he has guaranteed that the top job will not go to one of his internal enemies. Carswell, perhaps his most bitter rival, will not stand. And, thanks to the Farageist majority on Ukip’s ruling executive council, Suzanne Evans, Carswell’s preferred candidate, is serving a six-month suspension for “disloyalty”.

But although Farage has resigned as leader of Ukip, he is not quitting politics. Even after Brexit, Britons are cursed never to go more than a full day without hearing from Farage, appealing once more to his natural constituency: television and radio producers with airtime to fill. On 5 July he entered the fray again to condemn Theresa May, the front-runner for the Conservative leadership, for suggesting that the right of EU nationals to live and work in the UK could be up for grabs in negotiations over Britain’s new relationship with the EU.

Farage’s attempt to rebrand himself as a friend of EU nationals  less than a month after posing in front of a poster warning that Britain was at “breaking point”, the words emblazoned over a picture of Syrian refugees queuing to enter Slovenia – made for an unconvincing late-career choice. But he was not the only one. Tory Leavers such as Gove and Andrea Leadsom now seemed shocked to the core that anyone might try to reduce the number of immigrants in Britain.

Once again, an important debate was being subsumed into the internal drama of the Conservative leadership contest. And, of course, if Leadsom, Gove and their boosters in the right-wing press really wanted to guarantee the rights of European nationals – and the rights of British nationals on the European mainland – they had one clear option: to cast a vote for Remain on 23 June. Instead, they want British policymakers to be thrown into a battle to prevent a deep recession and a punitive exit deal that brings about prolonged misery for Britain, with precious little leverage on our part.

Then again, sabotaging the details of Brexit (if it’s to be carried out by anyone other than themselves) would be entirely in keeping with the Eurosceptics’ modus operandi so far. Who can doubt that if Leadsom, or Gove, does not win the Tory leadership contest, the package negotiated by the next prime minister will turn out mysteriously not to be what they wanted at all?

And surely Farage will continue to find a fruitful space to the right of the Conservative Party, criticising all the inevitable compromises of actual, practical politics. The joy of being an insurgent is that you never have to say: “OK, Mr Juncker, I’m willing to meet you halfway.”

It now seems entirely possible that we will never hear a detailed plan for Brexit from the group that did most to make it happen, but merely complaints about how their impossible vision has been betrayed. Already, the word is that factual reporting of the grim state of the financial markets is “talking Britain down”. It is this, the Brexiteers claim, that will induce another recession, not worldwide financial instability, or the reckless torching of the City of London’s chief appeal to investors.

On 23 June, Britain voted to “take back control”. Now we just need someone to take responsibility. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers