Our free and fearless press must have thought that, with the Tories deciding to suppress the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, they had got away with it once more. All the phone, email and computer hacking, blagging, bin rifling and other creative practices, most of them illegal, that had been used across the Fourth Estate would now be forgotten.
Sadly for the Press Establishment and their shameless hangers-on, there was someone on their case, and yesterday evening, via an item on the main BBC 2200 hours news, we discovered that until 2011 - in other words, two years after Nick Davies first blew the whistle on the phone hacking scandal, and eight years after Steve Whittamore was busted by the Information Commissioner for his trade in mostly illegally obtained information - John Ford had been blagging, email hacking and bin rifling for the Murdoch press.
And it wasn’t the Sun or Screws that Ford served, but the supposedly upmarket Sunday Times. He told Graham Johnson and his team at Byline Media that “he was tasked to unlawfully obtain phone bills, recover ex-directory phone numbers and penetrate private financial material, such as banking and mortgage data. By his own admission, several email accounts were successfully hacked”. His account of the work is compelling.
“All senior editors and most of the reporters at The Sunday Times knew that I obtained illegal phone billing data and bank account transactions, almost every week, for stories. I ‘obtained’ (which is another way of saying ‘stole’) confidential documents and private property on the specific and direct instructions of Sunday Times’ journalists”.
There was more. “I have come to realise more and more, that a large proportion of the work could not be justified in the public interest and was illegal, intrusive and ultimately wrong … I effectively hacked into thousands of bank accounts. I have developed hundreds of intimate profiles on people”. One of his targets was former Tory leader William Hague.
That included obtaining a copy of Hague’s bill from the Hotel du Vin, as it had been suggested he shared his room with a researcher. It wasn’t used at the time, but “this was not uncommon, a piece of Kompromat was always a useful thing for management to have in the safe ready to deploy at any key political moment”. The dirt in the safe. Again.
And one damning aside came on the legal aspects of his work: “Occasionally, the journalists who instructed me to do a blag, reassured me that what I was doing did not break the law. If I asked t‘hey would say: ‘We’ve spoken to Alistair (Alistair Brett, the Sunday Times’ in-house lawyer at the time) and he says it’s OK’. Of course, I did not know whether they were telling the truth. I had no option but to take their word for it”.
The Murdoch mafiosi have declined to comment to Byline Media, although they did tell the BBC that the ST had “a strong record of investigative journalism over decades and has employed many contributors and researchers to work on stories, or parts of stories … The paper strongly rejects the accusation that it has in the past retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally”. Mandy Rice-Davies applies.
But whatever the denials, enough names have been revealed to have been on Ford’s target list to ensure this story cannot merely be wished away. Former deputy PM John Prescott is already taking legal advice. Several of his former colleagues may be joining him, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, and Alastair Campbell. With Brown, it was bank details he went after. He “did” Campbell’s bins.
The protest of “public interest journalism” will no doubt ring long and loud, but the explanation for the ST’s interest is most likely rather more routine: Hague because of the (failed yet repeated) claims about his sexuality, and the others because they were part of the Labour leadership. Ford admitted that the Hague pursuit was unnecessary.
As the Byline article tells, “Ford says he fraudulently accessed William Hague’s bank account on-and-off for a month - for no good reason. The ‘fishing exercise’ was a bid find out if the former Tory leader had bought a present for a female friend”. A fishing exercise, trawling for Kompromat - these are not the tools of public interest journalism.
By suppressing this ...
Worse for the Murdoch empire is the ominous observation “Ford has identified over 20 journalists from whom he took instruction. Their boss John Witherow is Rupert Murdoch’s most senior and trusted editor in the UK”. Twenty names, some of whom will still be there in the Baby Shard bunker. And the Byline sign-off is equally ominous.
... he has more of those Questions to Answer
“Byline Investigation will provide much more detail on John Ford's revelations and targets in the weeks to come”. As Winshton might have said, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning.
[You can help the people at Byline Media, an entirely crowdfunded site, by contributing to their continuing efforts, via the article on John Ford]