Bettina Jordan-Barber is not your usual jailbird. The 42-year-old mother of two is from a background in which it’s more common to run a prison than experience it from inside a cell. But as she came to realise, everyone, including those from more privileged backgrounds, is only ever one bad choice or one mistake away from a jail sentence.
Her mistake was to tell a journalist from The Sun more than she should have about her work as a Ministry of Defence strategist, and to accept money for it.
Her work, which involved briefing ministers, gave her access to highly sensitive and confidential material. Not that she passed on any of that. The vast amount of material she passed on might be described as dinner-party gossip, but it included material which greatly embarrassed the Government, such as details of the lack of battlefield helicopters and other vital kit shortages that potentially put at risk the lives of British troops. These were facts she cared greatly about, coming as she does from a service family.
Despite a top-notch boarding school education, she insists she did not realise she was breaking the law by passing on some of the details. Preparing information for the press had been part of her duties, after all. Not that she is naive – she acknowledges she knew it was a breach of her terms of employment and contrary to the Civil Service code which governs the behaviour of public servants.
In her first interview since leaving prison, she says: “I never solicited payment … I didn’t negotiate it but I also I didn’t refuse it and that was my mistake.” She “didn’t refuse” £100,000 paid to her by News International and picked up by her from branches of Thomas Cook.
The cash, details of which were handed to detectives who were investigating allegations of phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s company, would have a catastrophic effect on her life. The police raided her Wiltshire home in February 2012 and arrested her. “Until that point I had no inkling.”
Such was her ignorance of matters criminal that when police asked if she had a solicitor, she replied: “Yes, for conveyancing.” When she realised she and her husband would be taken away for questioning, she asked whether there were crèche facilities for her young children.
Detectives confronted her with incriminating internal Sun emails which referred to her by name and discussed the information she had provided.
She appeared in court alongside Rebekah Brooks, the former Sun editor and News International chief executive, and was charged with conspiring to commit misconduct in public office.
“I went into a legal meeting clear I was going to plead not guilty. They explained the argument of a public interest defence, which might have been open to the journalists, was not going to be open to me. I kept asking at what point during my conversations did I break the law, but nobody could tell me,” she remembers.
“After that meeting I realised I was going to have to do things strategically. I had two young children and I needed to take the long view.” She and her husband decided to tell their children she might be “going away”.
“Their faces were crestfallen. We have always stressed to our children the rule of four: when you make a mistake own up; say you are sorry; take your punishment; and move on. I explained that when adults make a mistake, the police and sometimes a judge dealt with it. I said I had made a mistake and a judge was going to deal with it. My son asked if I had murdered someone. I said no, I had taken some money from a journalist. My daughter was cross with me for not telling her sooner.”
She pleaded guilty and apologised in January this year and was sentenced to 12 months. The trial judge said it was a “breach of the high degree of trust”. The leaks, he said, were “extremely damaging to morale and … break down trust among those who serve together”.
The journalists charged with her were all found not guilty. “I am a conspiracy of one,” she points out.
What then followed has been as life-affirming as it has been changing. “The white Serco van that takes you from court to prison might as well be a spaceship that takes you to another planet. It also gave me an education my parents couldn’t pay for,” she says.
The experience has resulted in a new career – advising people on what they’ll face and how to cope in prison. While in custody – initially in London’s Holloway, then in East Sutton Park open prison, Kent, she realised there was a gap in the market. “The criminal justice system would work much better and more efficiently if people were prepared for it,” she says.
On her release, with a tag, she joined Prison Consultants Ltd. The firm was set up by convicted fraudster Steve Dagworthy in 2013. While in jail, he realised that there was potential to provide services to those going inside.
These can range from a basic £250, two-hour crash course in what to expect, to more bespoke services including paralegal work. The firm managed to get one client a new mattress. “I realised before I went to jail that it was difficult to get information about what to expect. There are some wonderful organisations and charities which do valuable work, but fact-sheets don’t give you the ground truth,” she explains.
On arrival, she was mistaken for a solicitor. Wearing Gucci loafers and reading a broadsheet newspaper made her stand out. “I was posh, and there was no getting away from it,” she admits. Her speech is polished Received Pronunciation; she is the product of her home and school.
One comparatively young and inexperienced prison officer later admitted she initially dealt with Mrs Jordan-Barber differently because of her accent. “She thought I had mental health issues, as she had never heard somebody speak like me before.”
The toll on her “fantastically supportive” family is incalculable. During the three-year delay between arrest and sentence her father was diagnosed with dementia and died; she resettled her mother, who fell and broke her hip; her mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer shortly before she was sentenced, and died while she was in jail.
“I know that your average Daily Mail reader will be spluttering and saying ‘It’s your own fault,’” she admits. “But the punishment should be the conviction and the loss of liberty. There is a raft of punishments on top that nobody realises