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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

A new wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank shows that without a return to peace talks an all-consuming war is inevitable.

Once again, we are killing each other. Palestinian youths, their minds awash with anti-Israeli incitement, awake in the morning and decide to kill a Jew and go looking for a Jew, knife in hand, and stab him in the back, the neck or the heart. Israeli citizens, their minds addled by anxiety, lynch Arabs or men who look to them like Arabs, because they tremble at the thought of the next knife to emerge.

After a decade during which the relationship between occupying Israel and the occupied West Bank was relatively calm (Gaza is another matter altogether), violence has returned.

The First Intifada (1987-93) was a popular uprising of stones. The Second Intifada (2000-2004) was a relentless terrorist attack by suicide bombers in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed. The present wave of violence is one of knives, Molotov cocktails and vehicular assault. The number of casualties – dozens to date – is still much lower than in the past because this time the terror is neither organised nor sophisticated. In fact, there is something distinctly desperate about it, even pathetic.

But the emotional and moral effects of the violence of autumn 2015 are shocking. Young Palestinians, spurred by oppression, desperation and extremism, want to kill. Young Israelis, consumed by panic, seek revenge. The Promised Land is caught in a spiral of hate, racism, xenophobia and murderousness. With no effective Israeli, Palestinian, or international leadership in sight, dark forces on both sides are inflaming each other and dragging the two peoples towards a chasm.

The most common questions heard over the past few weeks are: what happened? Why now? Why did the volcano of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupt in September/October this year? But the question that should be asked is why this almost inevitable eruption did not occur three, four or five years ago. Given occupation, settlements, the turmoil in the Arab world, and religious radicalisation on both sides, why did Israel and the Palestinian West Bank enjoy seven years of such surprising calm?

Five factors are responsible for the relative quiet of the years from 2007 to 2014.

First is the terrible trauma suffered by Palestinian society when the Israeli army and the Israeli security service quelled the onslaught of suicide bombers in the early 2000s by reoccupying the West Bank, building the separation wall and breaking the spirit of the Palestinian population. The steep price the Palestinians paid for choosing the path of violence – under the influence of Hamas and the leadership of Yasser Arafat – brought about a deep reluctance to return to unrest.

Second is the fact that Hamas’s brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of 2007, after winning the Palestinian legislative election the previous year, and its totalitarian religious rule, led many residents of the West Bank to fear their extremist brothers no less than they fear Jewish extremists. Ironically, the threat of Hamas created an unspoken understanding between Israeli and Palestinian moderates, who preferred not to fight each other.

Third is Salam Fayyad. Unlike many others, the former Palestinian prime minister is a true peace hero. Born in the West Bank, the former economist and IMF veteran brought something altogether new to Palestine’s political life: clear-headed practicality. Fayyad’s work in the West Bank – imposing law and order, building institutions, advancing infrastructure projects and economic development – meant that for many years its residents enjoyed unprecedented growth of up to 10 per cent annually. Not only the restaurants of Ramallah were brimming with life; so were other Palestinian towns; and many Palestinian villages enjoyed a small, sweet taste of the good life. When the field is wet, it’s hard to light a fire. The relative prosperity and the modicum of hope that Fayyad brought to the West Bank anchored and secured the quiet.

Fourth is the diplomatic process. The (intensive) peace talks held by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel in 2007 to 2008 and the (wearisome) peace talks held by Abbas and the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in the four years to 2014 did not lead to the signing of a yet elusive final and comprehensive peace agreement. In many ways, they were idle talks based on tenuous assumptions. This is the reason why when Olmert made his Palestinian partner a generous and far-reaching offer under which Israel would withdraw from 93 per cent of the West Bank, Abbas disappeared, and when Netanyahu made a much more stingy offer, Abbas walked away. But the very existence of a sustained diplomatic process helped sustain the calm. Fruitless as it may have been, the diplomatic dialogue was an organising principle that prevented the odious demon of the conflict from escaping its bottle and wreaking havoc on innocent Israelis and Palestinians.

Fifth is the continuing chaos in the Arab world. Seemingly, the dramatic events that took place in Tahrir Square, Libya, Bahrain and Syria should have brought thousands of Palestinians to the street. After all, it was the residents of the occupied territories who in the late 1980s invented an effective and wide-reaching brand of Middle Eastern civil uprising. So given the (at first) exhilarating scenes being broadcast from neighbouring countries, the Palestinians could have been expected to mount a mass intifada. But the truth is that when the battle-weary residents of Hebron, Nablus and Jenin saw the bitter results of the Arab spring, their ardour for uprising quickly cooled. Despite the settlements and the Israeli army checkpoints that continued to mar their everyday life, they concluded that life under the Zionists in the occupied West Bank was far better than life under Arab tyranny in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. In its first four years, the historic windstorm that swept through the Middle East actually stabilised the gruesome system of sophisticated and surreptitious occupation in Palestine.


The five pillars of the present order proved resilient again and again. When negotiations between Olmert and Abbas broke down, nothing happened. When negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas imploded last year, the calm continued.

Neither regional upheaval nor local deprivation led to renewed violence. Time and again, the Israeli left’s prophecies of doom – without an end-to-conflict there can be no management-of-conflict, and so the conflict will surely resume – came to naught. Netanyahu cultivated his standing as Mr Security. And Abbas was seen as the boy who cried wolf. But the mutual dependence of these two leaders and their security services was such that the ever-smoking volcano of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not erupt.

Until suddenly the lava began to spew. So why now? And why in the fall of 2015?

Because the five pillars of order are crumbling. The trauma of the Second Intifada has dissipated and the memory of the destruction it wreaked on the Palestinians has grown faint (especially among the teenagers who are leading the present wave of violence). The threat of Hamas is less of a deterrent because the Gaza war of 2014 during which more than 2,200 Palestinians and 75 Israelis died in 51 days of mutual attacks, the corruption in Fatah and the dysfunction of the Palestinian Authority have all buoyed the popularity of the organisation (closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) in the West Bank. The hope that Salam Fayyad engendered began to die when he was ousted from office two years ago by Abbas and the economic prosperity he brought about is fading fast. What of the diplomatic process? Since the collapse of the US secretary of state John Kerry’s peace initiative, in spring 2014, negotiations between the two sides have ceased. And the paradoxically soothing effect of Arab world chaos (in its first few years) is gradually being replaced by the destructive influence of Isis and religious fervour among many young Palestinians, who have no rights, no jobs and no hopes for the future. None of the factors that underpinned the quiet in Israel-Palestine is as powerful as it was for most of the past decade.

And over the past year, two dangerous accelerants have been thrown into the powder keg: the systematic radicalisation of religious-nationalist Jews and Islamic-Palestinian incitement.

Jewish radicalisation has many guises. At the legitimate end of the spectrum are the Israeli public’s drift to the right, the rise of the settlers’ political parties and Netanyahu’s resounding victory in the elections of March 2015. At the other and unlawful end of the spectrum is a group of a few dozen Jewish terrorists and hooligans who attack Palestinians in the West Bank, with a clear and declared intent of fomenting an all-out war. Somewhere in the middle are the irresponsible nationalist politicians who over the past few months have brazenly insisted on ascending the Temple Mount and praying there, creating a glowering provocation that got out of control.

Palestinian radicalisation also has many guises: the anti-Israeli (and sometimes anti-Semitic) incitement in the Palestinian media; the menacing actions of extremist Islamic factions in Jerusalem, and finally the spreading of out-and-out lies, designed to create the utterly false impression that Israel seeks to take over the holy mosques of al-Haram al-Sharif.

The increasing friction between the quickly eroding factors stabilising order and the acceleration of the two radicalisation processes disrupting order finally lit the fire. With no hope, no economic prospects and no diplomatic horizon, incitement and provocation succeeded in raising to the surface the ever-bubbling rage of Palestinian society and the deep-seated fear of Israeli society. And like warring twins whose fates are nevertheless eternally entwined, they once again grabbed each other by the throat and refuse to let go.

But what the difficult events of this dark autumn have revealed is something far more sinister: the true and terrifying meaning of an increasingly fashionable idea – the one-state solution.


Since 1988, the widely accepted paradigm of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the paradigm of two states. In response to the growing economic, military and diplomatic might of the Jewish state, more and more Palestinians understood that they cannot hope to wipe out their sovereign adversary, against whom they had been fighting for generations. And following the First and Second Intifadas, ever more Israelis understood that they cannot prevent the people with whom they share the land from exercising their right of self-determination and founding a Palestinian state. As a result, the Oslo Peace Accords were signed (1993-95). And later, the Camp David peace summit was held (2000), followed by the Annapolis Conference (2007). The Palestinian leadership, the Israeli leadership and the international community all adopted the idea of the two-state solution and converged on the path towards two states, which was meant to divide the land, end the conflict and bring peace. But the failures of the various peace initiatives, the unceasing building of settlements and the rise of the naysayers in Israel as well as Palestine have meant that the two-state solution has lost its charm. The Israeli right has spared no effort in burying it. A majority of Palestinians have abandoned it. Internationally, the chattering classes have turned their back on it. Strangely, both the extreme right and the radical left in Israel, Palestine and Europe have fallen in love with the idea of one state.

The one-state solution has been tried in the past in the Middle East, namely in a nation state called Syria. The idea that Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and Christians can live together in harmony, under the common roof of one state, led to catastrophe: the most horrific present-day convulsion on our planet, with more than 200,000 dead and millions of refugees. A gargantuan nightmare. Is there any chance that a similar experiment in the Holy Land will yield different results? None. In today’s Middle East – which often resembles Europe of the 11th century – the expectation that Israelis and Palestinians will get over their grievances and live together in a Scandinavian-like social democracy is quite frankly absurd. Even worse, this expectation is a lethal one. Like a shiny red apple full of poison, beautiful without, deadly within.

But although the day-to-day reality of the Middle East proves just how irresponsible and perilous is a one-state solution (see also Lebanon, Libya and Yemen) the fundamentalist right and the fringe left have adopted it. Both the messianic religious nationalist right and the intellectuals of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement have authored different forms and versions of this insane and deadly idea. At the same time, the situation on the ground has advanced towards the reality of one state. An intransigent Netanyahu government, a vision-lacking Abbas government and moribund American and European governments have created a process of deterioration leading to ever more dangerous tumult.

We all hope that the present round of violence will die down in the coming days. It could very well be that, thanks to the king of Jordan’s plea, the firefighter John Kerry will douse the flames that threaten to engulf the mount on which once stood the First and Second Temples. But even if this respite comes, it is clear that, without profound change, sooner or later the fire will be reignited. Because what has occurred in the Promised Land over the past few weeks should be heard as a powerful wake-up call. A wake-up call that says there is no other solution than the two-state solution. A wake-up call that says the one-state solution is a deadly solution. A wake-up call that says that if we do not resume the march towards peace, we will find ourselves in a horrific, all-consuming war against which all previous wars will pale.

Ari Shavit is a senior columnist for Haaretz newspaper in Israel and the author of the acclaimed book “My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, published by Scribe

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?