"Special report: Inside Rebekah Brooks's News of the World"
Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton
July 14th, 2011
Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton
July 14th, 2011
"It was the kind of place you get out of and you never want to go back again." That's how one former reporter describes the News of the World newsroom under editor Rebekah Brooks, the ferociously ambitious titian-haired executive who ran Britain's top-selling Sunday tabloid from 2000 to 2003.
Journalists who worked there in that period describe an industrialized operation of dubious information-gathering, reporters under intense pressure attempting to land exclusive stories by whatever means necessary, and a culture of fear, cynicism, gallows humor and fierce internal competition.
"We used to talk to career criminals all the time. They were our sources," says another former reporter from the paper who also worked for Murdoch's daily tabloid, the Sun. "It was a macho thing: 'My contact is scummier than your contact.' It was a case of: 'Mine's a murderer!' On the plus side, we always had a resident pet nutter around in case anything went wrong."
The 168-year-old paper published for the last time on July 10 after exposure of its widespread use of phone-hacking triggered a scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper group News International, its New York-based parent company News Corp, and Britain's political classes and police.
Brooks, one of two top Murdoch executives who resigned on Friday, was arrested on July 17 on suspicion of intercepting communications and corruption. She has maintained she neither sanctioned nor knew about the phone hacking. The Guardian newspaper reported the paper's targets went beyond celebrities to include murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the bereaved relatives of dead soldiers. Murdoch has apologized personally to the Dowler family.
Four former employees of Britain's best-selling Sunday tabloid have told Reuters that Brooks's denials are simply not credible. They say people on the paper's newsdesk, the hub that directs news coverage, were regularly grilled about the top stories by Brooks and later by her successor Andy Coulson, who resigned over the phone-hacking scandal in 2007 and went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman.
"They went in and they were cross-examined for two hours every day. And it was all about the genesis of all the stories," the first ex-reporter, who worked at the paper for seven years, told Reuters.
The News of the World's reporting methods were first questioned when it published a story about an injury to Prince William's knee in 2005, prompting fears his aides' voicemail messages were being intercepted. The royal family complained to police. More than a year later the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for six months for conspiracy to access phone messages.
Coulson, by then the newspaper's editor, resigned immediately, although like Brooks he has repeatedly denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. Until recently, the paper continued to maintain that the hacking was isolated to Goodman.
Former employees say that's hard to believe, not only because of the story approval process, but also because budgets were so tightly controlled that payments for such services would not have gone unnoticed.
"It's simply not conceivable that somebody who was editor wouldn't have known," says the journalist who spent seven years at the paper, covering general news.
Neither Brooks nor Coulson could be reached for comment, and News International declined comment for this story beyond saying: "There are numerous views from former employees and we are not going to counter each one."
Reuters is a competitor of Dow Jones Newswires, the financial news agency that News Corp acquired along with the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
When Brooks became editor, at age 31, she had a brief to broaden the paper's appeal by intensifying the focus on celebrity and showbusiness news and publishing fewer of the harder stories the paper had been known for -- politicians caught taking illegal drugs or footballers caught with their pants down. More and more front pages were taken over by stories about C-list celebrities, such as contestants in the TV reality show "Big Brother", to the irritation of the old guard.
At the same time, the pressure to get exclusive stories was so intense that dubious practices were barely questioned. "They were 'dodgy business HQ'. I'm not sure if people even realized it was illegal. It was a don't-get-caught culture," said the reporter of seven years' standing. New staff would be given the cold shoulder until they'd proved themselves to be "thoroughly disreputable" so their colleagues could trust them.
"It was no place for anyone to pipe up and say: 'This doesn't seem ethical to me.' That would have made you a laughing stock."
Journalists didn't explicitly ask for private investigators to get involved in their work, but help would be provided if a reporter got stuck on a promising story. "How it arrived on your desk was a bit of a mystery. You didn't know and you didn't ask," said the reporter. "Every week, somebody's mobile phone records, somebody's landline records, sometimes even somebody's medical records. It was common enough not to be notable."
A fifth former News International employee who worked with News Of the World journalists at this time said its reporters were under "unbelievable, phenomenal pressure", treated harshly by bosses who would shout abuse in their faces and keep a running total of their bylines. Journalists were driven by a terror of failing. If they didn't regularly get stories, they feared, they would be fired. That meant they competed ruthlessly with each other.
Because the News of the World was a Sunday paper, where a hot story on Tuesday could be useless five days later, pressure was much more intense than at the Sun, said the ex-journalist who worked at both titles.
"The News of the World was much more secretive than the Sun. At the Sun, you knew what was going on, what people were working on. In the News of the World you never knew what anyone was working on. They'd send you out to a job and wouldn't tell you what it was for. It'd be: 'You're going to meet a man. Don't ask his name and whatever you do don't get him excited. Just take his statement and leave,'" he said.
"You became a complete survivalist."
Reporters say they lived in constant fear of byline counts which weeded out those who had filed the fewest stories. "They were always seeking to get rid of people because it was a burn-out job. Their ideal situation was you work your nuts off for six months and they let you work there another six months," said the general news reporter.
"Every minute you spent there you felt that your employer hated you."
Charles Begley, an ex-News of the World reporter, has spoken out about the bullying culture. He said he felt close to breaking-point when, three hours after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's twin towers, he was ordered to appear at the paper's daily conference dressed in a Harry Potter outfit he had been given to help the tabloid capitalize on the craze for the books about the boy wizard.
"At that time, we were working on the assumption that up to 50,000 people had been killed," he said then, according to tapes published in 2002 by the Daily Telegraph of a conversation between him and assistant news editor Greg Miskiw. "I was required to parade myself around morning conference dressed as Harry Potter."
It was during this conversation that Miskiw made a comment that was to become notorious in Britain: "That is what we do -- we go out and destroy other people's lives."
Contacted for this story, Begley said he did not wish to comment further on his experiences but stood by statements he made at the time.
The reporter who worked on both the Sun and the News of the World recalls that at one stage, every journalist in the News of the World newsroom was ordered to apply to become a contestant on "Big Brother", in the hope the paper could do an undercover report on it.
"Someone came round the office with all these application forms and we were all given a three-line whip to try to get on that bloody show. They were desperate to get someone on there and 'expose' it all. Everyone was moaning about it," he said.
The same journalist also described how four reporters were sent off as a punishment to spend a stint on a crack-ridden estate in Bristol and write a feature about it. They never went, he said.
Matt Driscoll, a sports reporter sacked in April 2007 while on long-term sick leave for stress-related depression, was later awarded 800,000 pounds ($1.3 million) for unfair dismissal. The employment tribunal found that he had suffered from a culture of bullying led by then-editor Coulson.
"Nobody ever felt secure there and that's the way they liked it. On the edge, scared, insecure," said the general news reporter.
Contrary to a popular perception that the tabloid threw large sums of money around to get stories, the news budget was extremely tightly controlled, the journalists said. One described how entire expense reports might be struck through with a red line without any reason given.
Readers who supplied a front-page story would typically be paid about 10,000 pounds, while story pitches negotiated by a publicist would command at least twice that. Smaller user-submitted stories would fetch a couple of hundred pounds. On Saturday afternoon, when it was too late for a reader to sell a story to another paper, their fee would often be reduced.
This is another reason it was hard to believe senior editors were not aware of phone hacking and other expensive illegal services provided by outsiders, the ex-reporters told Reuters. Mulcaire, the private investigator later jailed for phone hacking, was paid more than 100,000 pounds a year by the News of the World.
"No newspaper editor would not know what a 102,000 pound budget was used for. They knew about every 50 quid," said the long-term freelancer.
Eavesdropping on voicemail or obtaining call logs was initially a money-saving measure, according to the former employees. Rather than committing a reporter to stake out a venue for as long as it took to catch out a couple having an affair, for example, voicemails could first be scrutinized to establish the time and place of a rendez-vous, saving the reporter time and the paper money.
As its uses became apparent, it was employed more and more. The general news reporter said he was first shown how to listen in to people's cellphone voicemail by a colleague in the 1990s.
"It became the course of first resort rather than last," the long-term freelancer told Reuters.
But the focus on celebrities and reality television stars was causing problems inside the paper.
"It was a ridiculously cynical approach to news," says Peter Burden, author of the 2008 book "News of the World? Fake Sheikhs & Royal Trappings". "They just thought: here are these endless people that Joe Public are interested in because of 'Big Brother', and they thought they could do what the hell they liked with them and they raided them rotten, them and their families."
Editors would then often use damaging stories as bargaining chips, trading them for future access to public figures or to build relationships with stars. Often, the paper would drop the story they had altogether and publish something more sympathetic.
"It would be things like: 'We know you were sleeping with your secretary but we'll keep it out of the paper if you give us the story about how you were given away as a child," said the long-term freelancer.
"They used to call stories 'levers'," said the general news reporter. "They weren't necessarily interested any more in using the story you'd proved or got past the lawyers. They were interested in using the story as leverage in order to get a different story. Sometimes the kind of story that you would bargain as an alternative wasn't actually the truth. It annoyed a lot of reporters.
"It was relationship-building for them. Basically, she (Brooks) was trading in your hard work to be friends with influential PRs. They used the stories to bank credit with influential people. It then made the whole raison d'etre of the place something different."
Brooks did little to change the paper's culture. Former employees say she could equal her male counterparts in swearing, and would join the men for a drink in the pub. She could also be fearsome, intimidating even the aggressive Miskiw.
"Part of that macho culture was that you would laugh at the risk and the dodgy illegality you might find yourself involved in," said the general news reporter.
It became practically a matter of honor not to use respectable journalistic methods, the reporters said.
"The whole idea of having friendly relations with someone and getting them on the record -- that was just weird. You had to get stuff on someone and then confront them," he said.
In Brooks's resignation statement on Friday, she said: "I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt ... I now need to concentrate on correcting the distortions and rebutting the allegations about my record as a journalist."
"How Murdoch's philosophy created a climate of misbehaviour"
July 18th, 2011
July 18th, 2011
I was delighted that Rebekah Brooks resigned, thus becoming News International's second red-top casualty of the phone hacking scandal.
But I was upset that she chose to quit on one of the only days this year that I regarded as sacrosanct – the reunion after 45 or so years of colleagues from my first weekly newspaper.
So I was able only to knock out fewer than 300 words of initial reaction on Friday before travelling to Dagenham to meet my old friends.
In spite of our desire to reminisce about our past, the opening hour and more of our meeting was taken up with talk of Rupert Murdoch's meltdown.
No one in the newspaper trade can talk about much else. It has been the most astonishing 14 days in British press history, with daily shock heaped up daily shock.
And this is not the end. Remember what Brooks told the News of the World staff: some time in the next year you'll understand why we had no alternative but to close the paper.
Now she has gone, along with one of Murdoch's closest and longest-serving aides, Les Hinton. So has Tom Crone, the paper's lawyer. The editor during its final five years, Colin Myler, looks set to go too.
I know these people. I have, at various times in the past, enjoyed their company. I have certainly been critical of them in recent years for a variety of different reasons, but I had no reason to imagine them acting in any way that would lead to them departing from the company in such ignominy.
That said, I was acutely aware that the paper they were responsible for editing, legalling and managing was a cancerous growth in the newspaper body. In company with other red-tops, they have followed an editorial agenda that trivialised the activity of journalism.
I have been a critic of the direction taken by popular journalism for something like 20 years. Newspaper owners and editors have allowed entertainment to dominate information. Indeed, in some cases, information has all but vanished.
Desperation to supply entertainment material, especially in the face of increasing media-savviness by the people that feature in their pages, inevitably led to the adoption of questionable practices.
Nowhere was this more obvious than at the News of the World, which pioneered intrusive news-gathering techniques.
By the time I took the chair in journalism at City University London in 2003 I was thoroughly disgusted by the red-top agenda, the resulting content and the methods some papers employed to obtain such material.
That was obvious from the title of my inaugural lecture the following year – "Prejudice, distortion and the cult of celebrity: Is the press going to hell in a handcart?"
I referred sarcastically to the News of the World as an "academy of journalistic ethics" when talking about one of its most notorious "world exclusives" – a fabricated story about a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, which led to innocent men being arrested and held for months in prison.
City University and the News of the World
In my subsequent lectures in the following years I made it clear that the News of the World was taking us down a dark journalistic road. One immediate consequence was the paper's removal of a bursary that had funded two students to take the year-long post-grad course at City.
Though at least one of my senior university colleagues was upset, I welcomed it. How could we justify any formal link with such a venal newspaper?
Incidentally, The Sun took similar action. I lost no sleep over that either. There is no point in teaching young people the value of public interest journalism when, back at Wapping, they were expected to engage in an exercise that was a travesty of our trade.
In the lecture theatre and in the pages of The Guardian, I campaigned against the News of the World's routine reliance on subterfuge, covert filming, entrapment and the use of agents provocateur. At that time, we did not know about phone hacking.
It's fair to say that my campaign was anything but popular. Aside from many of my former tabloid colleagues seeing me as some kind of traitor, several journalists in the serious press thought my assaults were irrelevant. Though they conceded that the red-top agenda was mucky and its methods were murky, they took the view that the tabloids' activities were a sideshow that had no effect on the rest of the press nor, indeed, on the body politic.
Plenty were outraged by Murdoch's political influence, which stemmed from his ownership of papers that were prepared to publish almost anything to assassinate the characters of politicians who dared to adopt an anti-Murdoch stance.
But they failed to acknowledge that the link between degraded editorial content and disgraceful methodology was itself the consequence of the climate created by Murdoch himself.
His philosophy is simple – let the market decide. He is so wedded to this spuriously democratic formula that he believes it is elitist for journalists to set standards of taste and ethics. If the people want it, give it to them. The inevitable result was appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Murdoch's success rubbed off on rivals, most obviously on the once-dominant Mirror titles and it also spread gradually across much of the rest of an intensely competitive press at a time when the mature newspaper market was clearly in decline.
I should add that I was slow to catch on to Murdoch's baleful influence. I have had my differences over the years with John Pilger – well, to be honest, he has had his differences with me – but my hat is off to him. He can now be seen as Murdoch's first and foremost critic, and he will be the least surprised by the turn of events over the past fortnight.
Rebekah Brooks arrested and not exempt in this tangled web