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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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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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We are heading towards a world without animals

A little over 20 years ago, I saw a slender-billed curlew. Now it’s extinct.

It was a little over 20 years ago when I saw a slender-billed curlew. I was in Morocco; the bird, lanky and reasonably slim in the beak department, was feeding on a patch of wetland decorated with wild cresses. Rather a nice sight. Not many people have shared it since then – because it’s extinct.

In all probability, anyway. The last rites haven’t been read yet and the ultimate authority on these matters, the Red Data Book compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), classifies the species as “critically endangered”. That’s scientific caution: it’s almost certainly gone. So I’ve seen an extinct bird. A rum feeling.

The baiji, or the Yangtze dolphin, evolved to live in zero visibility in the murk of the great river system it is named after. It found its way by sonar – a strange beast, like an alien life form. The baiji is also extinct: chemical pollution, noise pollution, propeller strikes and the impossibility of living among so many people combined to finish it off. An expedition in 2006 declared the animal “functionally extinct”.

According to the Living Planet Index, compiled by WWF and the Zoological Society of London, the world’s wild animals will decline in number by two-thirds by 2020. Of the 85,000 species listed by the IUCN, more than 24,000 are in danger, including lions, rhinos and giraffes, whose numbers have fallen by nearly 40 per cent since 1985. A study published in the journal Science Advances in January found that three-quarters of primate species have falling numbers, with 60 per cent threatened with extinction, among them gorillas and chimpanzees.

It’s happening in this country, too. In England, the hen harrier is close to extinction as a breeding bird: the RSPB says there was “a tiny handful” of nesting attempts last season. In the past 200 years, Britain has lost 8 per cent of its butterfly species. We know that because butterflies are easy to see and to identify. In the same time, we have lost 3 per cent of our beetles, which are harder to catalogue. If you replicate that pattern across all our invertebrate species, between 1,200 and 3,180 species will have become nationally extinct in the past couple of centuries.

It seems that we are heading for a world without animals. “The blueprint is in place,” said Matt Shardlow, the CEO of the invertebrate conservation charity Buglife. “All we have to do is carry on the way we are.”

But this is a define-your-terms situation. Despite desperate attempts across the millennia, philosophers and theologians have failed to conceal the reality that humans are a species of animal; like the Archbishop of Canterbury, we are primates. We also keep a lot of domestic animals, and there is little sign of cows and chickens going extinct.

The total vertebrate biomass – that is, the combined weight of every living backboned animal on the planet – can be divided into the wild stuff and the rest. So here’s the first killer statistic: 10,000 years ago, the biomass of humans and their domestic animals represented 0.4 per cent of the total. Right now, it’s 96 per cent and rising.

The planet, then, is going through a significant change. This is not a dire warning: it’s a current event. It is not a scare story to persuade you to adopt a dolphin: it’s a plain fact. Palaeontologists agree that there have been five major extinction episodes in the Earth’s history. The most recent did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, after a meteor strike. The consensus is that the sixth extinction is happening right now. The dinosaur extinction was literally the end of an era, a geological one: the Mesozoic became the Cenozoic. It is now reckoned that we are entering a new geological period: goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene.

We seem to have accepted the idea that the loss of wild animals is the sad but acceptable price of progress – and that progress is an incontrovertibly good thing. We recently passed the point at which more than half of the world’s human population live in cities.

The loss of animal species is not seen as a serious matter – when did you last hear a politician talk about the extinction crisis? That reflects the notion that humans come first, the domestic animals we use for
food come second and everything else is either a pest or a luxury. To care about wild animals is sentimental, childish, unrealistic. They’re expendable.

And yet in alarmingly recent history, white races believed that all other races were expendable. Genocide was wholly acceptable; the killing of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals was considered perfectly justified. Peter Singer, the ethical philosopher, argues that our “circles of concern” have expanded since those times – beyond tribe, beyond nation and beyond race to all humanity – and should now be expanding further to include non-human species. That is happening to an extent (the worldwide ban on commercial whaling shows such thinking in action), but we are still losing both biodiversity and bio-abundance at a catastrophic rate.

***

What would a world without animals be like? That is to say, a world in which the only animals were humans and their domestic animals. In a sense, that’s the wrong question. The one set by the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s was “What can we do about it?” rather than “What’s in it for me?” But let us be human chauvinists – what Singer calls “speciesists” – and ask how the loss of biodiversity will affect the surviving species.

“We won’t be able to write off every species,” said John Burton, the acting CEO of the World Land Trust, a habitat protection charity. “We’ll always have rats and cockroaches and their like for company. Which is not inappropriate.” We have always despised species that make successful adaptations to human life.

There will be no wild fisheries. There have been decades of overfishing, on the principle of “the tragedy of the commons” – “If I don’t grab it, somebody else will.” Pollution has created 405 “dead zones” on coastal waters across the world, including an area of 6,500 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico.

But when we talk of extinction, it’s the potential loss of the great beasts – the charismatic megafauna – that reaches people: lions, rhinos, gorillas, elephants, tigers, whales. Their loss wouldn’t affect many humans materially, but the idea of losing them is distressing. We seem to be moving towards the idea of tokenism: the survival of a handful of wild tigers tells us that the world is still OK, and we can watch them whenever we like on the ever-more-dramatic wildlife documentaries. But a world without any wild animals at all is a more complex notion.

“There’ll be very few flowering plants,” Shardlow said, “but plenty of dandelions. They don’t need insects to pollinate them.” The impact of the loss of wild pollinators will be considerable, as most crops depend on pollination by animal species. It has been estimated that the annual value of wild pollinators to the global economy is $190bn. Modern conservationists talk about “natural capital” and estimate a fiscal value for “ecosystem services”.

The loss of pollinators has led to an industry that supplies domesticated bees to do the work that was once done for free. In some places, notably Sichuan in China, the pollination of fruit is performed by
humans with paintbrushes or the filter tips of cigarettes.

Lynn Dicks, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge’s zoology department, estimates that the loss of wild pollinators will reduce global production by 5 to 8 per cent, which is more serious than it sounds, when we consider that the human population is increasing by 75 million a year.

It’s also possible that species diversity is the structure that underpins all life on Earth. Natural systems have a “redundancy” – they contain more species than are necessary to make the system function. “The argument in ecology is that the redundancy is needed for the long-term resilience of the system,” Dicks said.

A monoculture is more prone to collapse than a diverse system: we have the example of the Irish potato famine of the 19th century. Modern farmed monocultures require a considerable chemical back-up to make them work. It’s possible that the end of biodiversity – and with it bio-abundance – will create a series of ecosystem collapses.

James Lovelock, who gave us the Gaia theory – that the Earth is best considered as a single living organism – has suggested a hideous future of small, scattered human populations perpetually at war with each other. Others believe that the startling ingenuity of humankind will find a way to survive. Nobody knows, but as the great American scientist and writer Edward O Wilson said: “One planet, one experiment.”

There are other forms of loss associated with the divorce of humans from nature. The loss of birdsong and flowering plants is not like the absence of wallpaper and ambient music. Recent research has shown that the physical and mental health of humans is closely associated with access to nature. It has been demonstrated that people in hospitals recover better from surgical operations if they have a window – and better still if they can see a tree. Those with depression show improvement if they spend time in natural surroundings. Children with learning and behavioural difficulties do better – sometimes astoundingly so – when they are in touch with the natural world.

Professor Andrew Balmford, also of Cambridge University’s zoology department, quoted a series of experiments on the effects of the natural world on human behaviour. One required people to pass notional judgement on offenders, one group doing so before images of skyscrapers, the other before images of trees. Those who saw only buildings gave harsher sentences, especially to offenders from minority groups.

In another experiment, people were asked about their core values. One group said that what mattered to them was fame and money; a second group said it was family and friends. This second group had been questioned after three pot plants had been added to the room.

You get the idea: we are nicer people – more humane, more truly human – when we have access to non-human life. If we complete our divorce from nature, it seems we will have a much less pleasant society.

Now all of this is very fine and true and important, and not to be set aside. But the extinction crisis is not happening by itself. You can regard the extinction of animal species as the ultimate disaster, or you can take a smaller view and see it as a symptom of the crisis facing the human species – but either way, there are terrible things going on.

***

We are in the process of killing off our planet: or, at any rate, changing it beyond recognition. We have already done the latter, but the process is nowhere near completion. We destroy forests. That contributes to the rise in global temperatures, but we need the land for agriculture or grazing. As a result, the land no longer holds water when it rains, so there are catastrophic floods that destroy crops and create famine. You can mourn the extinction of the bird species that lived only in that forest or you can mourn the human cost – but it’s all part of the same disaster.

The global temperature continues to rise. Climate change deniers will be regarded like today’s Holocaust deniers in times to come. We are living with a global rise of 1.2° C and climbing. It’s suggested that 2° C will be a tipping point and will lead to more extinctions – perhaps of the polar bear. It will also have a considerable impact on human lives.

It all comes back to population, the problem that dare not speak its name. Since 1950, the world’s human population has tripled; in 2016, we reached 7.4 billion. Energy use has increased by five times; so has fresh water use. You can argue that many of the recent events in politics and world affairs have been driven by the increasing pressures and proximity of human existence. “Even if we had a couple of extra planets, that wouldn’t solve the long-term problem,” said John Burton of the World Land Trust.

Human population growth is the principal driver of the global extinction crisis. There are not separate crises going on: it’s all linked. The loss of biodiversity and bio-abundance inevitably ensues. The long-time campaigner and environmentalist Tony Juniper said: “It follows that solutions are linked. It’s about sustainable economies – if we continue with economic growth, we will trash ecosystems and the soil. We need to end the extinction, reduce CO2 emissions and protect soils.”

Gerald Durrell, the pioneer conservationist, summed up the extinction crisis a generation ago: “People think that I’m just trying to look after nice, fluffy animals. What I’m really trying to do is stop the human race from committing suicide.”

All unattributed statistics are from Tony Juniper’s book “What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?” (Dorling Kindersley)

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit