All the (dirty) tricks of the trade

There, but for the grace of God.... Last week News of the World journalist Clive Goodman pleaded guilty to tapping royal phones in search of a story. It was not the first time Fleet Street's finest have indulged in such trickery. And it won't be the last
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The Independent Online

It was patently a fair cop. The guilty pleas entered on behalf of the News of the World's Clive Goodman and his gumshoe associate to charges of tapping the phones of aides to the Prince of Wales and Prince William were the equivalent of a housebreaker holding up both hands and going quietly. Breaking the law - justified only when unavoidable in matters of public interest, says the industry's code of practice - is an aberration beyond even the journalistic canon of dirty tricks that has helped earn the trade such opprobrium.

As doubtless happens in the truly dedicated criminal community after a big, highly publicised bust, there must be a great many journalists this weekend quietly reflecting that there, but for the grace of God... and deciding to lie low until the heat is off. The Information Commissioner recently announced that a Hampshire private eye had more than 300 journalists on his books.

Lawbreakers these hacks may not be, but dubious tactics are not the sole province of the News of the World or of the red-top press. Just ask any garrulous member of The Sunday Times' Insight team in its glory days about information obtained over lunches at a London restaurant table that was permanently wired for recording. And outside journalism, covert "intelligence gathering" - bugging is such a vulgar word - has been rife for years in the corporate world.

The covert tape recording of conversations by journalists may sometimes be reprehensible, but nobody complained when the acquitted suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder trail were secretly filmed for television making racist threats and brandishing weapons. It was in the public interest, of course, as was the News of the World operation of the early 1970s when Tory government minister Lord Lambton's predilection for call girls and marijuana was uncovered via a camera and microphone concealed in a teddy bear.

When I was editing The People and the landlord of a flat being used for extra-marital activity by then National Heritage Secretary of State David Mellor arrived with tape recordings of the ministerial sweet nothings whispered into the ears of actress Antonia de Sancha, I didn't hesitate in publishing a story that contributed to Mellor's eventual downfall. It is not illegal for a property owner to bug his own premises and, despite Mellor's pompous outrage, the only denial of public interest justification came from one or two equally pompous "quality" papers.

Subterfuge, a dodgy modus operandi and the readiness to dispense bribes - used banknotes preferred - in exchange for information has been part of popular journalism since Lord Northcliffe invented it towards the end of the 19th century, although only in post-war years has the Royal Family become a focal point of deceit and trickery.

Former Daily Mirror writer Donald Zec recalls how more than half a century ago he developed a financial relationship with a Buckingham Palace boilerman that led to scoops, including the story of how on the morning of the Queen's coronation a dozen hot water bottles had been placed in the Royal coach. Such innocent times. The not-so-innocent boilerman was rumbled when senior staff began to wonder how on his meagre salary he could frequently hail taxis outside the palace gates.

More recently, The Sun incurred royal wrath by publishing a photograph chosen for the Queen's Christmas card that turned out to have been stolen from a film-processing laboratory (threats of legal action over breach of copyright and the involvement of the Serious Crimes Squad seemed excessive even at the time). And Diana, Princess of Wales, was hounded literally to her death by paparazzi activity that saw acres of undergrowth and forests of trees defiled by trespassing photographers whenever she took a holiday.

Is disregard for the law more prevalent as the war of diminishing circulations demands even fiercer competition between newspapers? I don't think so: most editors play by the rules, and only reporters and photographers with more balls than brains do not recoil at the thought of having their collars felt.

A Daily Mirror team in pursuit of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes once, without the authorisation of their paper, bribed a fireman to allow them to enter the Hertfordshire headquarters of aviation company Hawker Siddeley illegally by cutting a hole in the wire perimeter fence under cover of darkness.

They were acting on a tip that Hughes would be taking a plane from there. Mission unaccomplished - fog determined a no-show by Hughes - they stumbled into a hangar to be confronted both by what obviously were top-secret plans and documents and the prospect of several years in chokey. They managed to leave with the exiting night shift come morning, but one photographer confesses that his blood still runs cold at the memory.

Straightforward dirty tricks are a different matter and often are deployed to hinder and frustrate opposition troops rather than civilians. Few reporters of the old school - meaning those who actually hit the streets to work stories, rather than remain glued to a computer screen - will deny, in pre-mobile days, disabling public telephones to prevent a rival dictating copy. A Fleet Street legend, Harry Proctor, allegedly became so angry at being beaten to the only available phone by a fellow hack that he bound the door of the phone box shut before leaving to continue his inquiries.

And why did crime reporters wear dark blue suits, white shirts and polished black shoes? They may not have told those they interviewed they were police officers, then again, they may have neglected to say they were not.

Proof that flying by the seat of the pants and fracturing laws and guidelines, inadvertently or deliberately, is as old as the black art itself can be found in Hecht and MacArthur's 1931 film The Front Page, when reporter and editor Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns hide an escapee from death row from both the other journalists and the sheriff. Such goings-on, ex-newsman Hecht was later to recall, were only a slight exaggeration of the newspaper practices of Chicago in the 1920s.

Perhaps the cynicism of an unknown Sun journalist during Kelvin MacKenzie's era says it all. A printed sign hanging over the features desk read: "Make it fast, make it first and make it accurate." To which a jaundiced hack had added: "If all else fails, make it up."

Bill Hagerty is a former editor of 'The People'