This article was first published 21/04/18 on our sister site byline.com
RUPERT Murdoch’s Sunday Times newspaper stole Government Ministers’ household trash in an illegal and sustained search for stories it hoped would bring down New Labour, Byline Investigations can reveal.
The traditional Tory mouthpiece used the product of midnight raids on homes of Westminster powerbrokers in stories it falsely attributed to a party “mole” – seeding damaging political rifts at the heart of British politics by doing so.
The loss-making broadsheet also targeted the Governor of the Bank of England and non-elected party aides, pilfering everything from private family medical records and bank data to confidential memos and even children’s toys.
In one incident, the stolen underwear of a female target found its way to The Sunday Times’s Wapping offices where reporters “tossed” it around “like a trophy” – and then stored in a so-called “Black Museum” of journalistic curios.
The revelations have emerged as part of the testimony of private investigator-turned-whistleblower John Ford, who has admitted to carrying out a four-month surveillance program with full knowledge of Sunday Times’ executives.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has accused the then Editor John Witherow, who today edits sister paper The Times, of knowing about the investigator’s “dark arts”.
Ford, 52, who worked for The Sunday Times’ Insight investigations team as a secret “pretext blagger” and data thief for 15 years, exclusively told Byline Investigations how he received £250-a-time in cash payments for the illegal “bin spins”.
Of the surveillance regime – carried out between 2000-01 and named Operation George – he said: “In terms of journalism’s dirty tricks bin-spinning is particularly serious because it is such a general invasion of privacy.
“In any given bin I might find bank statements, personal letters, doctor’s notes, or confidential memos from work, all mixed among leftovers from the weekly supermarket shop.
“Most people would be mortified to think of anyone going through their rubbish in such a targeted way – let along a national newspaper intent on using what it found to try and sell more copies.
“I was a professional blagger and data investigator for The Sunday Times for many years. I broke the law for them on countless occasions. They told me I was working to develop stories in the public interest. I now see I was naive to believe that.
“And when I heard about the discarded underwear of one female target being tossed around the newsroom by male journalists like a trophy, it really made me stop and think. It felt only a couple of steps removed from sexual assault. It was nauseating.”
Ford felt compelled to speak out after wrestling with his own conscience – and seeing Murdoch’s broadsheet papers try and adopt moral high ground over recommendations made by the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards.
“Speaking out is the right thing to do,” he said. “The public should have no doubt there is little to distinguish the activities of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids from their broadsheet cousins.”
Ford was already an active member of The Sunday Times’ investigations team when the idea of running fishing expeditions – known in the industry as “garbology” – on key players within New Labour was proposed.
The paper had in the past used the services of Benjamin Pell, a former trainee solicitor whose raids on the bins of London law firms had turned up titbits considered newsworthy.
Now, despite knowing the practice was a criminal offence, The Sunday Times decided to develop its own in-house outfit and range it against its enemies in Government.
“The aim was to find the material the paper needed to force Ministers to resign,” Ford said.
“Previously, I had carried out some vastly successful spins in the corporate sector, as part of my private investigator work in the commercial world.
“I asked the Insight editor why he did not consider doing something similar. He liked the idea. He thought that Benji (Pell) was risky and that I could run a better operation.
“Also, I lived close to (chief pollster) Philip Gould and (communications director) Alastair Campbell, in north London. I had done the ‘reccies’, and seen that there was low-hanging fruit. The Insight editor produced a hit-list.”
On the list were some of the most influential people in Tony Blair’s New Labour administration. They included then Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, 10 Downing Street Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, Cabinet Office Minister (and key Blair ally), Charlie Falconer, Philip Gould, Alastair Campbell, the then senior Treasury adviser (and later leadership candidate) Ed Balls, and the then Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George.
Ford went on: “We could only target ministers who did not have grace and favour properties provided by the state, because the security surrounding them was just too high.
“Before obtaining the rubbish of a target, I contacted the local council, of whichever borough, the government minister lived in. I said I’d just moved into the area, and asked very simply when bin collection day was.
“At first, I collected bins myself. But when the pressure got too much, I employed a friend who had the time and balls required to do it. ‘George’, as I called him, intercepted the bags and brought them back to my house to be analysed.
“He was professional, even obtaining a council donkey jacket so he looked the part. George never met the Insight team, but nevertheless the whole thing became known as ‘Operation George’.”
Together, with the use of an unmarked rental van, Ford and ‘George’ proved true the adage that ‘one man’s loss is another man’s gold’.
Ford said: “I might get some bags that contained what I called ‘hamster food’ – strips of shredded documents. But there were often private letters that were intact and readable, often sent between ministers.”
He went on: “George visited the home of Geoff Hoon twice only to find no bins at all. Hoon lived in a terraced house, with a door onto the street. When I told the Insight editor we’d drawn a blank he giggled and said ‘Probably just as well, as he’s MoD he’s under the Official Secrets Act’. This was not something mentioned to me when I was given the list.”
But for every missed bin, Ford – and The Sunday Times – enjoyed plentiful success. The whistleblower has identified at least 12 high-profile scoops resulting directly from garbology.
“The fee was always the same – £250.00,” Ford said.
“But there were bonuses for a big hit. I would meet the Insight editor in a train carriage at St. Pancras Station.
“At the time my office was just around the corner so it was convenient. We would turn off our phones and swap data for cash. All ‘George’ business was strictly cash only.”
The paper – fearful its illegal acts would be uncovered – attributed its stolen stories dishonestly to ‘leaks’ from inside Number 10. The idea was to create an impression of government insiders betraying their ministerial colleagues.
And the tactic succeeded, even provoking a mole hunt within Downing Street that cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds.
In one article involving Philip Gould, The Sunday Times wrote: “The new Gould leak will reinforce Downing Street’s suspicion that a ‘job lot’ of potential explosive correspondence between Labour’s most senior figures is being drip fed to newspapers to cause maximum damage.
“It will heighten concern that there is a mole at the heart of government.”
Ford went on: “So many stories were garnered this way, that Gould and Campbell blamed each other for leaking. It led to infighting at Number 10, and a probe led by Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and MI5.
“Of course, The Sunday Times could hardly admit that its stories were really the result of its sifting through the bins of the people at the top of British politics.”
To further cover their tracks, The Sunday Times plotted to deflect blame onto another party – the domestic security service, MI5.
Ford said: “As well as their bins, I was also routinely looking at the targets’ bank accounts, tax affairs and phone bills. So, as I already had their ex-directory home numbers, I was told to ring them in middle of the night… and then hang-up.
“The idea was to get to them psychologically. We hoped the targets would start to think they were being bugged. It all helped muddy the waters.”
The detail in Ford’s testimony is deeply damaging for the man ultimately responsible for his activities; as sitting Editor of The Times John Witherow remains a Fleet Street grandee and loyal and influential lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch.
Ford recalled: “Alastair Campbell was a ‘chucker’ and Gould was a ‘shredder’.
“I recovered one torn-up memo from Jonathan Powell which was recreated by the editor of Insight, who prided himself as being something of a palaeographer (handwriting and ancient texts expert).
“It formed the basis of a November 2000 story headlined ‘Leak reveals secrets of the No10 scribbler’.
“The memo contained a possible reference to the illness suffered by the Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, who later died of a brain tumour.”
“A woman was also targeted in a particularly humiliating attack. Her bin was ‘pillaged’ regularly,” Ford revealed.
“Among the material the paper acquired from the bins was an item of her underwear,” he said.
“It became an object of some mirth in The Sunday Times office, and I was told by a member of the Insight team that it was being thrown around like a trophy before being put in the ‘Black Museum’, a cupboard in the newsroom where curious items retained from various jobs were kept.”
On another occasion, the broadsheet’s raids on Lord Falconer turned up “loads of toys and souvenirs”, which found their way to Ford’s home to be used by his own children.
Now, just as in 2000, the ‘public interest’ legal defence for stealing personal data does not cover ‘fishing expeditions’ – acting without first having reasonable grounds to suspect wrongdoing – for a story.
It also breached the comparatively relaxed terms of the Editors’ Code of Conduct, as prescribed under the self-regulatory system of the now defunct Press Complaints Commission.
The code was written and overseen by a committee of editors – one of whose leading members between 1998 and 2010 was John Witherow.
Last night a spokesperson for press reform group Hacked Off told Byline Investigations: “John Witherow, The Sunday Times Editor under whom John Ford served, has remained silent.
‘Today, Mr Witherow is the Editor of The Times – the newspaper of record – and the most powerful Editor in News Group Newspapers.
“Yet, he has failed to put on record why a private investigator was permitted to execute a 15-year long, industrial scale, crime spree on his watch, during which, the bank records and communications’ data of thousands of victims, from cabinet ministers to office clerks, was stolen and misused and, from which Mr Witherow wholly benefitted.
“It is right and just that Mr Witherow gives a full account of his role to the public, and especially to his readers, whose trust he has abused.”
Byline Investigations has contacted Mr Witherow, The Sunday Times, and its parent company News UK for comment but had yet to receive any at the time of publication.