Screwed! Biggest-selling Sunday rocked by shock phone-tap scandal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Falls from grace are meat and drink to Britain's biggest selling newspaper, the News of the World. But with its top Royal correspondent Clive Goodman under arrest and suspended from duty, and two sensational court defeats in the past month, the NoW is becoming a story worthy of its own paper. Editor Andy Coulson, who had until recently been a spectacular success, could not have expected the next "hero to zero" story to be his own.

Coulson's annus mirabilis began in March 2005 at the British Press Awards when the NoW was named newspaper of the year for breaking a series of exclusives, including David Beckham's affair with Rebecca Loos and David Blunkett's relationship with Spectator publisher Kimberly Quinn.

As 2006 began, Coulson appeared to have discovered gravitas. The NoW's exclusive images of British soldiers beating Iraqis constituted public service journalism. The story made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic and the Screws appeared to be on a roll. Sales figures confirm it. July's year-on-year ABC figures show the NoW down just 5.92 per cent at 3,482,856 sales against declines of 33.71 per cent for the Sunday Sport, 13.86 per cent at The People and 6.65 per cent at the Daily Star Sunday.

The first blow came last month when an Old Bailey jury acquitted three men accused of involvement in an alleged terrorist plot - the "red mercury" case - after they were caught in a sting orchestrated by the NoW's investigations editor Mazher Mahmood (aka the Fake Sheikh). He had posed alongside an undercover Scotland Yard agent as a possible seller of the chemical which could be used in a terror attack. The accused walked free following defence claims that the "sensationalised" story was published solely to bring the NoW "commercial gain" and for Mahmood's "personal kudos".

Then the teetotal Scottish Socialist Party MSP, Tommy Sheridan, won an unprecedented £200,000 defamation claim against the title which alleged he was a hypocrite who cheated on his wife, visited sex clubs and drank champagne. It was the largest defamation award ever made in a Scottish court. In his victory speech Sheridan said the jury who found in his favour had "done a service to the people of Scotland and have delivered a message to the standard of journalism that the News of the World represents".

Confirmation that this is now Coulson's annus horribilis came last week when NoW royal editor Clive Goodman was charged with nine offences related to accusations that a story by him followed the leak of a mobile phone message about a planned interview with Prince William by ITN journalist Tom Bradby.

Goodman was suspended from the paper on Friday and will appear with his co-accused, Glenn Mulcaire, at Horseferry Road magistrates' court in London on Wednesday.

Celebrating his Press Awards success last year, Coulson directly answered those accusing him of unreasonable intrusion into private lives. "There's a pretty well-established set of Press Complaints Commission rules, and there's the law. We know the law, we know the PCC, and we work within it." Of the Royal Family, he said: "I feel strongly that the Royals shouldn't be treated any differently to anyone else. The kids are of an age now where they have no special rights in my view."

Neither NoW nor its News International parent is prepared to comment on the recent embarrassments. Others dismiss them as pure coincidence. Ian Reeves, editor of Press Gazette, says: "A big libel reverse can happen at any time. This is just a question of unfortunate timing."

But critics see an obvious connection. "The NoW is in crisis," says Professor Steven Barnett of Westminster University. "They have been found out. We are seeing the lid ripped off some of the lurid and unacceptable techniques of red-top tabloid journalism." Barnett says the title is fighting a desperate rearguard action against a declining market and the specific threat from websites that now beat it to celebrity revelations.

"There is a place for high-quality tabloid investigations. There is nothing wrong with exposing incompetence, laziness and scrounging. The Royal Family does not deserve to be sacrosanct. But at one end of the tabloid industry journalists have started to go further. These are grubby money-making scams, designed to sell newspapers and nothing else. There is no public interest involved. We should be grateful that the NoW's tactics have been exposed. Maybe there is a silver lining. Perhaps some of these excesses will now be reined in."

Bill Hagerty, the editor of the British Journalism Review, says: "The reading habits of the nation have changed."

Barnett agrees: "The upmarket Sundays are not in bad form, but the pressures on the red-tops have increased. They are in terminal decline."

Hagerty says Coulson has handled those pressures well. "The NoW is in less difficulty than any rival title. For professionalism it is superb. If you look at the three issues in isolation there is no crisis at all. The Sheridan story was astonishing. Nobody expected him to win. You can question the Fake Sheikh's tactics, but he has got an awful lot of people arrested. The latest one is worrying, but what is alleged is not remotely new. Phone tapping is a very fraught area. The NoW will put a spirited defence."

The judge in the red mercury trial warned jurors the case was "not about showing distaste for the News of the World's style of journalism". News International has promised to appeal against the verdict in the Sheridan case, which Scottish NoW editor Bob Bird describes as "perverse".

But Barnett predicts that News International chief Rupert Murdoch will assess Coulson's future on economic criteria. "He will look at the bottom line. Will this hit sales? Readers may dislike a newspaper that uses these techniques. Mr Murdoch might feel he has to demonstrate that he has limits beyond which his editors cannot go."

That is highly unlikely, according to Press Gazette's Reeves. "Rupert is quite a loyal boss in troubled times. He very rarely reacts with a knee-jerk. Four weeks ago Andy Coulson was riding high. That counts for a lot."

Eavesdropping: I was a voicemail 'screwer' too

An anonymous former tabloid journalist tells how it is done...

Checking people's voicemails or phone bills was quite common where I worked, and you just wouldn't ask anyone about it - just do it. If what is needed is to work out if someone is having a new relationship, all I needed to do is check who the celebrity is making late-night calls to.

As long as you can get hold of your target's name, address and date of birth, which is easy enough through public records, you could get hold of their phone records by asking a private agency. They have people placed in the phone companies who would bring up the records and pass them on. You have to pay the private agency but never as a straight bill. It would always end up being pushed through as expenses of one sort or another.

Once you have the phone records it's just a matter of calling the celebrity's number and also the numbers they have been calling to see what sort of voice messages are being left. If they haven't changed the voicemail codes, it's easy. That's how you work out the connections between people.

But it's not just calling the celebs. I know of journalists on the tabs who call up the mobile phones of journalists on rival papers, and check their voicemail to see if they might have a message on there, giving away one of their scoops.


New boat race, guv?

Over at EastEnders, the talk is all about facelifts. After the successful trials of HDTV for the World Cup and Wimbledon, EastEnders may be nextto go high definition. But it is not the bills for sand-blasting the weathered faces of Pat Butcher and Dot Cotton that are a worry, but the set. "It's all fibreglass and the paint is peeling," says my BBC man with a paintbrush. "Under high definition, you can easily see the buildings aren't brick - they are going to have to rebuild the whole set."

No comment

Cruel observers who suggested the Telegraph's comment editor Stephen Robinson would use his Bill Deedes biography as an excuse for an extended holiday have been proved wrong. Robinson is returning from his sabbatical in the nick of time. His deputy, Danny Kruger, is off towork as an advisor for David Cameron. That leaves the desk unmanned by any permanent editor for the last two weeks of August, with Robinson due back at the start of September. All hail his glorious return.

Pitch battle

It's six months since John Micklethwait, then US editor of The Economist, took on The Telegraph's Matthew d'Ancona for the editorship of The Spectator. D'Ancona won, and Mickers took the editor's chair at The Economist. Now they are to meet again, on 25 August, in an inter-magazine cricket match. Micklethwait has emailed his staff: "Since last year we have replaced an editor who could bat, bowl and wicket-keep with one who cannot do any of these things." At least he is a good editor. There is no word on d'Ancona's form yet.

Shirley not...

"Shameless Shirley" proclaimed the Evening Standard last week, when it carried an "exclusive" splash by its property correspondent, Mira Bar-Hillel, on how the former leader of Westminster Council had returned to London and bought a £1.5m flat in Mayfair. But, sadly, congratulations were short-lived. The same story had already been delivered in far more style by her Associated Newspapers' colleague Richard Kay that very morning. In his Daily Mail diary was the headline - "Shirley it can't be her again... it is!" How classy.

Press the buttons

A little note to the following celebrities to change their mobile phone answering service PINs: Keira Knightley and Rupert Friend; Penny Lancaster (especially when pregnant); Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan, when the press are crawling all over you. The same goes for Prince Harry and girlfriend Chelsy. It's not difficult.

Yes, we are amused

The Evening Standard's listings section has been the cause of much mirth after their Thursday edition printed an item on The Queen's Gallery exhibition. Unfortunately the venue Buckingham Palace had its B replaced with an F. Was it a disgruntled sub about to leave, a latter-day Cromwellian, or a prankster in their midst? Listings editor Richard Godwin offers a simpler solution. "I think it might have been a typo," he says sheepishly. "Of all the letters my finger could have landed on, that was the most unfortunate."