The 'culture of fear' inside News of the World HQ

When the News of the World hit its sales zenith of more than 8 million copies a week in the 1950s, it did so under the advertising slogan "All human life is there." Some 60 years later, its former punchline might be applied not so much to the contents of the paper as to the type of people it employs to hunt relentlessly for a scoop.

The most successful and fearsome red-top of them all started life in 1843 as a scandal sheet dedicated to revealing the seamy goings-on in Britain's brothels and gin palaces. While some of the subject matter may be little changed, the competitive nature of the newspaper industry and a "culture of fear" inside the NOTW means that pressure is more intense than ever on its journalists to produce results.

Four reporters and one private investigator employed by the "Screws" have now either been jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of celebrities, have alleged that the practice was widespread within all tabloids, or have been suspended while claims that eavesdropping on voicemails is still going on are investigated.

Inside the fortress-like surroundings of News International's Wapping headquarters, the nation's top-selling newspaper is produced by driven and accomplished professionals who can legitimately point to stories such as this month's gambling sting operation against Pakistani cricketers as evidence that they produce news which other media are only too happy to follow.

But former staffers have told The Independent that throughout the editorship of Downing Street press chief Andy Coulson, there was a tacit understanding between journalists and senior editors that "all means fair or foul" were to be employed in the pursuit of a story.

One former journalist said: "There was what could only be described as a culture of fear inside the paper. Andy [Coulson] was a very focused editor and it was very clear that there was no such thing as failure – 'no' was not taken as an answer. The result was a mental sweatshop and it got results.

"You never heard it expressed explicitly but clearly senior staff had access to specific information about individuals which was then passed on to individual reporters to stand up. It would seem unlikely that if someone like Clive Goodman was filing expenses for a substantial sum to be paid to Mr Mulcaire that questions weren't asked about just what it was for."

Sean Hoare, another former NOTW journalist, who told The New York Times he had been "actively encouraged" by Mr Coulson to hack into phones – something Mr Coulson denies – described these methods as "the dark arts".

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