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but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".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

Picture: Ben Jennings
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The Brexit plague

Theresa May is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady that has already destroyed David Cameron and destabilised Britain.

Theresa May thought she had a shrewd plan for how to make Brexit work – first of all, for her. Having said almost nothing during the toxic 2016 EU referendum campaign (much to David Cameron’s dismay), she was well positioned – only superficially, it turned out – to benefit from the political devastation that followed. With Remain defeated and Leave destroying itself, May’s combination of saying nothing while projecting steely competence was artfully presented as just what the country needed.

No more pandering to the 24-hour news cycle, no running commentary, no flashy headline grabbing. That May didn’t chase headlines became the new headline. It was a seductive narrative, given the shouty unpleasantness that had come before. The Prime Minister’s moral authority became subtly bound up with avoiding saying too much: a void had entered a vacuum and it was being presented as a virtue. “He posits a principle,” as Nietzsche quipped, “where he lacks a capacity.”

But the Brexit strategy that won May power during the post-referendum carnage – there’s been an earthquake: everyone lie down very still under a table – turned out to be inadequate as a plan for contesting a general election. The longer the campaign dragged on, the clearer the contours of the gaps and inadequacies became. Conservative MPs, most of whom are Remainers, were asking the country to vote in a parliamentary majority in order to smooth the path of a hard Brexit. Over the course of the campaign, voters sniffed expediency and called it out.

The convenient narrative now in vogue – that the election was scuppered by May’s advisers – is a displacement activity. In fact, May’s advisers had initially done almost too good a job at turning her deficiencies into virtues. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t make enough of May; they had made too much. The shortfall between myth and reality added to the look of a politician who had been rumbled. During the election campaign, an uncomfortable alternative crystallised: the absence of style does not guarantee the presence of substance.

It is hard to imagine a swifter or more complete collapse in political standing. The wild swings in May’s reputation, however, offer a kind of mitigation. She must take responsibility for the campaign, but not for the national mood, especially how it has been coarsened and confused by Brexit. Just as May didn’t deserve her stellar ­pre-election personal polling, she doesn’t deserve the opposite arrangement now.

Is Britain becoming increasingly ungov­ernable? Some argue that the electorate has internally contradictory desires: first it votes for Brexit, then it votes to deprive the government of a majority as it tries to effect Brexit. A rival theory holds that the country has been let down by poor political leadership. But the two explanations, apparently opposed, in fact interact in a compound ­effect: erratic leadership unsettles the judgement of those being led.

***

A friend of mine mischievously likened this to a familiar rural scene: “Anyone who has observed a large flock of sheep being marshalled by a young or incompetent sheepdog will have noticed how, with each badly executed move by the sheepdog, the flock becomes ever more frightened and rebellious.”

Confusion also manifests itself as a thirst for someone to blame, and it has briefly settled on May. She is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady: the Brexit plague.

Given that many of us are getting used to being wrong so much of the time – I anticipated a Remain win and then a May majority – I was pleased to chance upon an old column I wrote for this magazine, the central argument of which I’d almost forgotten: “The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days . . . Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic . . .

“To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by ­Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches”?

I wrote those lines in July 2016, when Theresa May had been Prime Minister for one week. It was one thing, I argued, to win referendum support for Brexit as a story about what Britain should or could become (or what it once was). But any politician ­trying to make Brexit a political reality would be left “floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate”.

During this year’s general election, however, I failed to follow my own logic. If I had done so, I would have seen that May would find it much harder than everyone predicted to win an election while keeping the Brexit Question under control. She tried not talking about Brexit, and that sounded disingenuous. Then she tried talking about Brexit, but there wasn’t much appetite for listening.

May’s Brexit strategy and the rest of her electoral pitch were in contradiction. On the one hand, there were the reassurances to the Brexit constituency: May the steely deliverer of promises, the “bloody difficult” woman of her word, with an unflinching desire to follow things through. Brexit means Brexit; sighs of relief all round.

Then there was the usual play to the bottom line: the Tories are the only people you can trust with the economy. In other circumstances, even a relatively flat and uninspiring Tory leader who promised “strong and stable” leadership amid economic uncertainty – a firm hand on the tiller and all that – would surely have defeated the Corbyn-McDonnell-Abbott axis comfortably.

But these are not normal circumstances, because the economic uncertainty is bound up with a choice and a policy: namely Brexit. So May, in effect, was promising to provide strength and stability in order to deliver certain uncertainty. She made a big play of being just the person who could calmly and unshakeably steer the ship inexorably towards what will surely be a huge storm.

You can be totally confident it’s going to happen, that thing which inspires little confidence, but you can’t trust Labour with the numbers: this was the Tory party’s idea of a trump card. The second part is definitely true, but it loses its lustre after the Brexit bit.

Here there were similarities with the 2016 US presidential election (albeit a different result). Donald Trump was gifted the ­perfect opponent. He is a vulgar fraud who is professionally dodgy, yet his easy defence was: “But what about the Clintons?” For the establishment also had reputational problems, only with the added burden of lacking both the entertainment factor and an outsider narrative. The ideal candidate to beat Trump would have been self-evidently principled, which has never been a strong suit for the Clintons.

***

The Tories, with their strong and stable pursuit of a hard Brexit, were tainted by subliminal economic uncertainty. And Corbyn’s Labour, vide Diane Abbott at the calculator, was also inevitably tainted by economic uncertainty. Labour, however, could sugar the pill with a lot more free stuff. The lesson here is not, as some Conservatives have argued following Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Theresa May’s debacle, that it is no longer possible to win as a stability candidate. But it is true that a stability candidate cannot easily succeed if he or she shares a sufficiently similar weak spot with a more novel and superficially intriguing electoral outsider.

It turned out that Labour had chosen a strangely effective moment to take refuge in frivolous dissent. In these serious times, unseriousness proved a harbour for them. Though it sounds absurd, it is possible that a more credible opposition would have done worse at the polls because the Tory scare story would have felt more plausible. Labour has another advantage: even though the party played its part with its feeble referendum campaign, the electorate doesn’t blame Labour for the Brexit-induced political crisis. Nor should it.

Given that backdrop, my conjecture is that for all the flaws of May’s campaign – the defensive catenaccio, the bleak tone, the lack of wit and charm – the election could never have been properly about the Prime Minister. Ironically, by trying to turn the election into a vote of confidence in her competence, May in fact made it less likely that she would become the personification of Brexit.

Instead, she will now probably end up as a bit-part player in a much bigger story: the tale of Britain’s increasingly ham-fisted attempt to leave the EU on tolerable terms. For a quiet Remainer whose catchphrase became “Brexit means Brexit”, that is an appropriate decline in influence.

When the election was called, initially it seemed like another pragmatic masterstroke; the Tory party, which understands power better than any other party in the world, was doing what it does best: reorganising itself to benefit from the new political reality. Yet there was a different kind of shy Tory during this election: not the shy Tory who doesn’t want to own up to Toryism, but the shy Tory who sought a modest win. Many Conservative supporters I know wanted May to win the election but not too handsomely. They feared a landslide would lead to a resurgent Europhobic Tory right. Far from the original spin that the election was needed to create a bulwark against the hard Brexiteers, Tory-Remain voters feared the opposite. And when lots of your own potential supporters don’t want a big win, you scarcely win at all.

It is often said that early elections backfire because the electorate resents the disruption. In this instance, that resentment was especially deep among Tory-leaning Remainers.

There is always a deeper rhythm and May is not entirely responsible for the beating drum. It is not quite true that, in her words to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, she “got us into this mess”.

The Brexiteers, most of them Conservatives, created the mess. Their relentless obsession with Europe pressed David Cameron into holding a referendum. Strands of the Leave campaign pandered to mob elements that they then couldn’t appease. Then came the Brexiteers’ inability to settle on a realistic candidate after the referendum, leaving a Remainer to do their bidding.

My first instinct after the referendum was that the process of Brexit had to be fronted by a Brexiteer. It was their show: over to them. When that person became Andrea Leadsom, I recoiled and changed my mind. Now I think I was right first time. Brexit must anoint one of its own. I’m also beginning to suspect that the electorate’s desire to see the right people blamed for Brexit will prove stronger than the desire to actually brexit. The superficial logic said: Corbyn can’t be PM, so call an election. A quite different disquiet was revealed: who is to blame for this annoying chaos?

That is an augury for the immediate future of British politics – blame. When a new economic reality bites, there will be a lot of Brexit anger to be redirected. In the process, the old political parties and alignments will be pushed to breaking point.

Perhaps the pull of political justice will demand that the cracks, when they come, ought to be in the appropriate places. That craving for justice may trump the need for competence. If Brexit does turn into a disaster movie, who would be a suitable protagonist? It is hard to escape the logic that the most apposite outcome – even if it is unappealing, especially for the long-term health of the nation – is that Brexit should be delivered by those who initially won the popular argument.

When the mood turns, however, the same movement that craved a populist hero will need a panto villain.

Step forward, Boris Johnson: your country needs you. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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