THIS week’s Channel 4 Dispatches took the story of phone hacking in Fleet Street further and ratcheted up the pressure on David Cameron’s spin doctor Andy Coulson another small notch. The eloquent and incisive presentation by political columnist Peter Oborne showed just why people should be so concerned about the methods employed by some hacks to bring in the catches from their fishing expeditions.
The documentary succinctly explored the pursuit of celebrities, politicians, police officers and ordinary members of the public among the 5,000 plus victims of the phone hacking affair. It rightly questioned the relationship between some newspapers and Metropolitan Police, though perhaps ventured too far in claiming there was a conspiracy between Rupert Murdoch and the previous Government.
The story of “Sam”, the victim of a horrific sex attack, who has only just discovered that her phone was hacked, is one of the strongest arguments why this case must be properly re-investigated, because I have no doubt that when this story unravels further we will be shocked at just how widespread the illegal accessing of personal information and unjustified snooping has become.
Let’s not forget out of more than 5,000 victims the Metropolitan Police chose to concentrate on just two victims and only the Royal stories being pumped out by former News of the World hack Clive Goodman. The fact that he and private eye Glen Mulcaire were paid off with substantial amounts of money by News International to stay quiet about the frequency of the snooping and who at News International knew about it, should not prevent them from telling the full truth about what was going on inside Wapping. Indeed since they have already been prosecuted and convicted they offer the best hope of getting to the bottom of this story by being interviewed a second time by detectives, this time as witnesses and not under caution. I will also be intrigued to see whether the planned BBC Panorama programme on the phone hacking affair makes it onto the screen next week. As I have written previously, this story is only just beginning to unravel…it is certainly not going to go away
|David Cameron must decide if Andy Coulson (right) is really the right man to be communicating his ideas
THE allegations due to be printed in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine go the furthest so far in the tawdry tale of phone hacking at the News of the World. Testimonies from former executives and journalists who have worked at the newspaper confirm what every reporter who ever worked for a national tabloid newspaper from the late 1990s onwards has known. It is, I am afraid to say, just the tip of the iceberg.
To quote Sir Francis Bacon, knowledge is power. In the 21st Century that is truer than at any other time in the history of information-gathering because of the wealth of private electronic data that is now accumulated on every individual through a variety of mediums from mobile phones and email to bank and medical records. I will make no apology here for the wish of every journalist to accumulate “golden nuggets” and “smoking gun” information in a legal manner. It is the raison d’etre of every journalist to accumulate information, disseminate it and educate the public with knowledge while in the pursuit of worthy stories. What is wrong, and open to criminal allegations, is that the pursuit of that information was blinkered by the desire to provide the public with salacious bits of tittle tattle using illegal means without any recourse to the benchmark question; is it in the public interest? There are plenty of occasions where the “dark arts” have been used to to unearth genuine exclusives which have been in the public interest, but even then, and only then after the necessary checks and benchmarks have been applied. And so we come to Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s personal spin doctor and former News of the World editor. Honestly speaking, I do not have any personal knowledge that Andy Coulson knew what was going on or that he was the only executive directing these activities but I know and have worked with many former News of the World journalists whose words I trust. They say Coulson did know and that he has misled the parliamentary committee about his knowledge. I know from personal experience that phone hacking and “blagging” went on wholesale during his tenure, as one reporter put it “even the office cat knew it was going on”. And blagging information is something that still goes on to this day. These kinds of dark practices also went on every working day at a number of other newspapers including the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday Mirror. I recall being told about one Sunday newspaper attempts back in 2002 to access the medical records of a high profile celebrity, who had already been at the centre of a cocaine and call girls scandal. On that occasion the Met Police also investigated and indeed there was evidence of collusion between newspaper executives and a rogue BT telephone engineer. The enquiry petered out into nothing, no newspaper executives were either arrested or charged, but the story had a ring of truth about it even then. In all but a minority of cases there was no public interest justification for the use of such practices, the journalists involved were merely embroiling themselves in “fishing expeditions” at the behest of their scoop hungry editors and woe betide you if you didn’t come up with that exclusive. But there can be no excuses. This type of activity, if unchecked, undermines the bedrock upon which journalistic ethics stands and it is a story that is not going to go away. Be braced because there will almost certainly be more to come on this story.
Today’s news that Coroner and QC Karon Monaghan has called for a review of the the UK’s witness protection services has been a long time coming and is long overdue. If nothing else, Hoods , illustrated just what happens when there is no continuity or depth in the witness protection framework to deal with the real threats that organised crime poses to those ordinary people who speak out against its pernicious reach. It is a tragedy of appalling proportions that it has taken the brutal deaths of two pensioners to reach this stage but as is so often the case, it takes something of that nature to shake us out of the complacency that had been allowed to build up over this area of policing. Joan and John Stirland really did deserve better treatment and there will be individuals and corporate entitities who will never be able to wash the blood from their hands over the Stirlands deaths. There is no doubt in my mind that consideration must be given to a national body set up to deal with witness protection which is independent of local police forces and this should be a fully funded body which can deal with the huge expense and strain on resources which witness protection inevitably creates. As matters currently stand there are people who would be willing to turn their lives upside down and give evidence against major criminals if they had faith in the system. There is very little faith in the current system and the deaths of the Stirlands has magnified that lack of faith. Nobody wants to see the spectre of criminal trials collapsing against the some of the most dangerous villains simply because witnesses do not feel safe but that has become an increasingly common situation in the UK. It will be interesting to see the responses of ACPO and local police forces to this issue, but the Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution also need to have an input into this debate. We saw on the streets of Nottingham how urban terrorism, threats and fear have taken their toll on some of the city’s population and unless we have the systems in place to reassure those who need our protection, it will be a story coming to a city near you soon.
|Trevor Wade in happier times
For the past year I have been actively supporting the plight of a Lincolnshire pensioner who was arrested in Spain after being duped into driving a car which contained £22 million worth of cocaine. Most criminals will tell you they are innocent or have been stitched up and for that reason alone I don’t tend to get involved in miscarriage of justice cases unless there is clear evidence that the person involved is innocent. But I have absolutely no doubt that the case of Trevor Wade passes that test. Trevor’s plight is detailed in the revised edition of Hoods, so I won’t duplicate those details here but in short, the biggest problem is that Trevor has been held in prison now, without trial, since September 2007. Today I feel an overwhelming sense of anger and sadness after I learned that his lawyer believes a trial may not take place until April 2011. It is frankly shocking that a 66-year-old man in poor health, against whom there is no evidence other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, can be left to rot in a foreign prison without trial for almost three years. I do not blame the Spanish for Trevor’s plight, they were only following the trail given to them by British investigators at the Serious Organised Crime Agency. SOCA has admitted it has no evidence on Trevor Wade but says it cannot interfere in the judicial process of a foreign power. Ditto the Foreign Office. But the fact is they don’t appear to be doing anything else to resolve the matter either, almost as if to say they would rather it was swept under the carpet than admit when a costly mistake has been made. If this had been a case of a foreign national in the UK then Trevor would undoubtedly be home with his family by now, either because there was no case to answer or through abuse of process rules. Even in the unlikely event he had gone to trial in the UK he would certainly have been given bail until the date of the hearing. At present, he is struggling to survive the regime in Leon Prison where the odd piece of Spanish Tortilla is often the only food he looks forward to eating. If there is anybody out there, either in SOCA or the Foreign Office, who has a conscience I would suggest that now is the time to make yourself known because all the apologies and platitudes in the world are going to mean nothing to Trevor’s family if he ends up living out his last days in that Spanish cell.
This week an eminently sensible person made some eminently sensible statements about the UK’s current drugs legislation. In a newsletter sent out to barristers across the country, Nicholas Green QC, current chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales , said that Britain should consider decriminalising drugs. His words were picked up by the Daily Telegraph .This should have provided the platform from which a sensible debate about the drugs issue could be launched. What we got instead was the usual rabid reaction from the moral panic brigade which sought to shoot the messenger before he had a chance to elaborate any further on his hypothesis. Among those leading the charge was Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, who said: “It is is a ludicrous argument to say let’s legalise drugs.” Is it so ludicrous? Right now the illegality of drugs in the UK makes it an economy worth more than £10 billion to the organised crime groups involved in its trade. The devastation to society in terms of the violence, fear and corruption created by the gangsters dealing in drugs is immeasurable and however effectively you fight the war against the drug barons, there is a plethora of others willing to step into the vacuum created by any successful battles waged by our law enforcement agencies. What is measurable is that illegal drugs costs the UK another £13 billion to police in terms of drug-related crime; much of which is leaving a bloody trail on the streets where gangs are fighting turf wars over the profits to be made from it. In the UK’s prisons alone the drug trade is worth another £100 million, because drugs such as heroin can fetch up to ten times the price inside compared to the price on the streets. There are people being murdered in the UK because illegal drugs equals money and the profits to be made from them make it worth a dealer arming himself with a firearm or knife to protect their business territory. There is no sign either that the illegality of drugs is doing anything to prevent people taking them – in fact quite the opposite – their very illegality continues to create a mystique about substances some of which have been around us for more than 2,000 years. Lets face it illegal drugs are harmful to the health but are there many illicit substances which are more harmful in their health effects and the cost of their abuse than alcohol and tobacco. I know many sensible people in both the legal profession and law enforcement who would not only support a debate on the issue but would actively support a change in legislation because they know that the war on drugs cannot be won from the position we are in right now. However, fearing a tagging as a moral heretic to be burned at the stake, their voices continue to remain publicly silent. Frankly I only see the situation getting worse because career paths are now being laid for our young people which are built on the trade of illegal drugs from the school gates to the housing estates and on to the trendy bars where a trip to the toilet for the affluent middle class member of society is often more about a line of cocaine from the cistern than a leak in the bowl. Nevertheless many respectable people in positions of authority who have thought-provoking things to say about this issue are being silenced because the media is failing to push forward the debate and instead promoting a moral panic. I am unsure myself about the legalisation of drugs but I am sure that at the moment it is the biggest issue facing this country and it is a subject which we should be debating in a sensible way. To that end the Telegraph did eventually have a sensible say on the matter through the column of its blogger and writer Andrew M Brown. So let’s try to promote debate not destroy it because we should know by now that hysteria is simply the realm of the ignorant and the misinformed.
Earlier this week the Met’s chief Sir Paul Stephenson indicated that dealing with organised crime was the biggest challenge that would face the UK’s law enforcement agencies in the coming years . He rightly raised concerns about how, in the current economic climate, police forces and the criminal justice system – faced with making huge budget cuts – would be able to meet the challenges of organised crime. The public could be forgiven for thinking that the agency specifically charged with combating the problem the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) , now in its fifth year, is on top of the problem.
In fact SOCA is only dealing with the top tier of criminals and most of the middle and lower tier criminal gangs which are operating now out of Britain’s housing and industrial estates fall under the radar of SOCA. As a result these gangs are being left to grow perniciously because the specialist units which local police forces have to deal with them are few and far between. More than that these specialist units are the very ones that may be at risk when the current round of budget cuts being considered by all police authorities come into play. In Nottinghamshire it was this very scenario – the dismantling of its major crime unit and drugs squad, in 2000/2001 – which contributed to the rise in power of gangsters such as Colin Gunn from the city’s Bestwood estate. In today’s Telegraph there is a further warning about how organised crime is being imported imported and yet this is a problem that has been festering for some years; staring the politicians in the face. Perhaps a way forward would be for police forces which share geographical county borders to pool their resources into regional specialist units to tackle organised crime such as the East Midlands Special Operations Unit which uses the resources of five police forces to tackle organised crime and middle tier drugs dealers. Ultimately it will be for the politicians to decide where the axe falls on the ever thinning blue line, but if Sir Paul Stephenson is correct the UK could be in for a rocky ride ahead with the economic conditions giving rise to more wannabe Tony Sopranos than it can handle.
During the writing of “Hoods” I encountered several disturbing examples of the corruption that is blighting the fight against organised crime. They are sobering stories that go some way to explaining why law-abiding people lose their faith in the authorities. Two particular individuals have suffered immeasurable damage and continue to do so. Kevin Musgrove and Trevor Wade, though they have never met, share a common bond. An extract from Hoods of Kevin Musgrove’s story (more of which is to be revealed over the coming weeks) can be found here . The bones of Trevor Wade’s case can be found in a story I co-wrote for The Guardian and there are further details in the notes section of the Facebook page dedicated to releasing him from his nightmare in prison here. If there is one thing I have learned in 22 years in journalism it is that innocent people can and do end up in prison for crimes they had nothing to do with.