According to Sunday Times whistleblower John Ford, Tony Blair’s key government decision-makers were under surveillance, with his targets including the Prime Minister himself, his wife Cherie, and one of their children.
The prestigious Sunday broadsheet hired John Ford to carry out the intrusive surveillance operation on ministers and their families, and much of the intrusion was never justified in the public interest, nor were the subsequent published stories, based on information he illegally obtained.
The surveillance of the Blair government was extensive. Billing data from mobile and home phones of a wide variety of senior politicians was monitored almost continuously. Whitehall mandarins and senior business people were also targeted. Ford provided illegally obtained ex-directory telephone numbers to the paper on a weekly basis. The private bank accounts of Labour politicians were illegally accessed hundreds of times.
Once he was in government, I targeted ministers in the Blair government on a continual, rolling basis
The then Chancellor Gordon Brown and Business Secretary Peter Mandelson were amongst the most targeted. Home Secretary David Blunkett, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine were all ‘blagged,’ either directly or through their associates. Downing Street’s Director of Communications Alastair Campbell, and at least three other top aides, also had their private information hacked into by the Sunday Times.
During one phase of Ford’s spying operation, the domestic rubbish of key members of the cabinet was routinely stolen and some personal effects reportedly kept as trophies, hidden in a ‘black museum’ where the newspaper’s Insight investigative team had a separate office.
The Sunday Times Crimsight Team
These extraordinary revelations have been made by the whistleblower who ran the paper’s ‘Dark Arts’ operation for 15 years.
Sometimes the journalist would urge me to prioritise their job saying ‘Witherow wants this’ or ‘The Editor wants it’.
John Ford, a privately-educated former actor, who was the Sunday Times’ covert investigator from 1995 to 2010, said Tony Blair’s administration was a particular focus of Murdoch’s leading newspaper.
“Once he was in government, I targeted ministers in the Blair government on a continual, rolling basis,” Ford explained. “Often, for no other reason, than who they were and the jobs they did. I was expert in obtaining the billing data from their home phones and mobiles, so the Sunday Times could see who was calling who and when. I also got into their bank accounts.”
“I got copies of their hotel bills,” Ford told Byline investigations, “data about their tax affairs and domicile status, travel info and airline passenger manifests. Even their legal correspondence, which was highly confidential.”
Ford admitted: “I now realise that many of the inquiries were ‘fishing expeditions’ which are illegal whatever they subsequently reveal and much of what was revealed was not justified in the public interest. The instructions were given to me by the Sunday Times’ most senior journalists and editors, and were based on tips that often turned out be inaccurate.”
“I was generally tasked by telephone, and not email, so no paper trail was left,” Ford said. “I had to ask some journalists to stop emailing me, using the word ‘blag’ in the emails. They were asking me to ‘blag this and that….’ Some reporters had to get approval from managing editors before they commissioned me.
“Without question, authorisation for payment for my activities and the pursuit of stories was coming from above, especially when there was a focus on serious and sensitive stories. Sometimes, the journalist would urge me to prioritise their job saying, ‘Witherow wants this’ or ‘The Editor wants it’. I do not know whether this was true, but I certainly took the instruction on face value.
“This was not very often,” Ford explained. “This happened particularly when I was asked to steal books or when reports, such as BBC documents, were recovered. Or internal documents that related to public affairs.”
During his 15 years working for the paper, Fords says The Sunday Times had an established modus operandi of targeting politicians by “any means possible.” So far, he has identified 16 Labour cabinet ministers who he hacked, and three top aides.
They had secret caches of news stories, which were secreted ready for later, timely deployment.
One of his victims was Peter Mandelson, whose bank account was repeatedly rifled by Ford. The private investigator said that he carried out many “harvesting expeditions” on the New Labour architect’s account. “Too many to remember,” he said. “On one occasion, I even changed the password on his bank account, so that Mandelson could not access it, and therefore interfere whilst I was searching the transactions. I found out Mandelson’s ex-directory number and blagged his phone bill on many, many occasions.”
Throughout the period that Ford worked at The Sunday Times, the editor was John Witherow, who was later promoted to edit its daily sister paper, The Times.
According to Ford, private investigators may have been introduced to the paper under Andrew Neil’s editorship but under his successor, John Witherow the taskings were ‘more frequent’.
Ford was initially proud of his position at Britain’s most prestigious Sunday paper. “I believed that before I was tasked there was a public interest formula,” he says “by which the job was judged and that each one was cleared by lawyers.”
“I was told, that the Sunday Times’ lawyer had cleared my activities. The journalist would often say: ‘Alistair Brett (the in-house lawyer) says this is OK. I don’t know whether it was true, but I took their word for it.”
Ford claims most journalists in the newspaper’s newsroom were familiar with dark arts. “It seemed to me that few in the newsroom were unaware what I was up to. I was working for the most prestigious newspaper in the UK. I thought I was serving the common good.”
“One of the pleasures, that I got working for The Sunday Times, was that it felt like an adult version of throwing stones at the headmaster’s window when I was at school. If the killer fact, that I had recovered, was on the front page, then I’d feel very proud and I’d tell my family. I felt professional and significant. It was as though people in government deserved it. Now, my perception is entirely refocused.”
However, Ford also says that much of the compromising information he supplied to the Sunday Times was not used in stories – and is now demanding to know if it was used to coerce politicians in some way.
“Much of the information I got failed to manifest itself as copy,” he claims. “Questions can be asked about the final deployment of this embarrassing information. They had secret caches of news stories, which were secreted ready for later, timely deployment.”
Ford says his awareness of the illegality of his work increased over time.
“Year by year, I felt more and more uncomfortable, but by the time, I could see it all clearly, I was a slave to my mortgage. ‘The discomfort I felt in relation to all of these activities has caused me ten years of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I carried on thinking I was working in the public interest. Now many of the public interest pretexts for what I was doing I know were spurious.”
Ford says he’s come forward to ‘expose the hypocrisy’ at the heart of the Murdoch media empire. The mogul’s corporate standards were recently given the green-light by a government watchdog overseeing the Fox-Sky bid.
“It was hard to live with the knowledge that my activities had adversely impacted on families, livelihoods, careers, marriages, private lives, finances, without any public interest. The last five years have been particularly bad. Since 2013, my life has been changed and the last four years have been really difficult. I have done a lot of damage to people in the public eye, but also damage to my children and my family, including the breakdown of my marriage.”
According to Ford, it was only the newsroom’s strict “omertà” (the name for the Mafia’s code of silence) that stopped the scandal from leaking out during the Leveson inquiry in 2011 and 2012.
Ford says he’s come forward to “expose the hypocrisy” at the heart of the Murdoch media empire. The mogul’s corporate standards were recently given the green-light by a government watchdog overseeing the Fox-Sky bid.
He has also vowed to help the victims of his illegal inquiries, in a bid to “make amends for the harmful activities” that he carried out on behalf of The Sunday Times. Ford has held private meetings with at least two of his high-profile victims.
It is the first time that a high-brow Murdoch paper like The Sunday Times has been dragged into a scandal that mired the tabloids, particularly The News of the World, The Sun and the Mirror Group, in allegations of phone hacking and unlawful blagging.
The News of The World and The Sun were edited by Rebekah Brooks when the alleged phone hacking took place. Brooks is now Chief Executive of News UK and is the publisher of The Sunday Times and The Times.
In July 2011, The News of the World was shut down, following revelations that investigators had listened to the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Since then, allegations of phone hacking have spread to The Sun, claims which its lawyers have denied in a long-running High Court case. So far, News Group Newspapers (NGN) has paid damages to more than 20 victims – and considerable legal costs – who alleged they were hacked by The Sun, without admitting liability.
News Corp, the company run by the Murdochs, owns News UK, the subsidiary that controls The Times and The Sunday Times, as part of Times Newspapers Limited. The company’s latest financial returns reveal that it has so far paid over £500 million pounds in legal fees and damages for hacking.
Now The Sunday Times may come under fire in the High Court as victims – even if they have already settled-out with the tabloids – may be able to sue Sunday broadsheeet in separate actions.
The News of The World and The Sun were edited by Rebekah Brooks when the alleged phone hacking took place. Brooks is now Chief Executive of News UK, which is the publisher of The Sunday Times and The Times. Neither Brooks or News UK have yet replied to Byline’s request to comment.
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