By John Ford
THE REQUEST to steal Tony Blair’s book came through The Sunday Times’s Insight investigations desk around July 2010.
I answered the phone to the mellifluous tones of journalist Claire Newell, who must have known straight away that I didn’t love the idea of trying to intercept the manuscript of Blair’s much-anticipated memoir.
“But, why Claire, there won’t be anything in it,” I said, trying my best to dodge the job.
“I know, but the Editor’s really keen,” she said.
She kept calling back, time and time again, cajoling me into biting the Wapping Shilling just once more.
But it was surely a suicide mission.
The hitherto clandestine world of blagging had been blown wide open in 2008 by Guardian journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. In it, I received what Insight Editor Jonathan Calvert described as ‘an honourable mention’.
Davies, bête noir of the UK’s newspaper ‘dark arts’ industry, and its lawyers, had tried hard to nail me.
Somehow, using my smarts and some Sunday Times-budgeted hotel stays, I gave him the slip, when he came to my door armed with (perfectly truthful) accusations and calls for comment.
Still, I found that my name – which being the generic ‘John Ford’ made me un-Googleable – was now nestling amongst the engine’s first hits.
Along with a number of follow up pieces in The Guardian, I was firmly yoked to ‘criminality’; a burden I had always felt the time-honoured ‘Public Interest’ legal defence protected me from, though apparently no more.
It soon became obvious that, despite numerous excellent first interviews for whatever jobs I was applying for – my grey hair ruled me out of hospitality work, so they were mostly sales positions – a mysterious froideur would descend on my applications.
Thereafter, I gradually succumbed to the double whammy of penury and depression. Things got black.
As the mortgage had remained unpaid for months, and my children’s birthdays passed with minimal gifting from Dad, I was vulnerable to Newell’s final offer.
“At least have a go,” she implored. “Just to get the Editor off my back. And when you don’t get it, just send me a report of what you did and a bill for £500.”
That, finally, swayed me.
Naturally, she never explained that Rupert Murdoch had already offered £500,000 for the serialisation rights to the book – and been rejected either by publisher, author, or both.
I just did my worst and in a long story – a tale to be told in full another day – I ended up arrested and bailed.
On bail, yes, but protected by the wonderfully pugnacious Yorkshireman solicitor, Steven Barker, who had been retained at hefty cost by my employers Times Newspapers Ltd.
At the time, I felt nothing but gratitude to be receiving the not inconsiderable attentions of Barker, and The Sunday Times’s new-hire legal eagle, Pia Sarma.
My main fear had been a full frontal outing a la Glenn Mulcaire – the man vilified nationally for hacking the phone of a murdered schoolgirl – and I was relieved by the seemingly incredible silence of the newsroom, which meant my on-going charges remained out of the public gaze.
I felt like I was escaping, once again, albeit by the hairs on my chinny chin chin. I thanked the Good Lord for his beneficence in having the might of the world’s most powerful newspaper baron in my corner.
I was still too naïve to realise that I, of course, was a disposable buffer, protecting Newell and Witherow from the allegedly long arm of The Law.
Mysteriously, my bail was extended, apparently on account of ‘complications’ relating to the recovery of data from the three computers and a Blackberry confiscated by detectives from my home.
I finally surrendered for bail nearly two years after my arrest. Only later, when I could look objectively at my symptoms of panic attacks and emotional inconsistency, could I self-diagnose as having classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
On the day my case was dispatched with a caution by City Police, Steven Barker came with me to the Snow Hill cop shop in London’s Bishopsgate.
I remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief as I emerged through the station’s heavy wood-panelled doors. We headed to a nearby hostelry to toast the success of the outcome over Guinness.
It was here that Barker started to tell me about the new place he had bought in the Dordogne. He made the offer that I might like to spend some time there as guardian while it was empty; he asked my plans for the future and I proudly informed him, high on insanity, that I would become an artisan baker.
Whereupon we parted, never to see one another again.
I had one more phone call and that was with Robert Winnett, a one-time rising star at The Sunday Times, who was intimately involved with the arrangement of my legal defence.
Despite having been poached by The Telegraph while I was on bail, he remained in close contact with his friend Will Lewis, one of the leaders of News International’s Management and Standards Committee (the unit Murdoch set up to clean house after phone hacking).
Winnett told me there had been some “very high-level negotiations” in relation to my case. He elaborated no further, and – even though I considered him a very close friend at the time – it was the last time we spoke.
My mum was relieved by the news.
“At least it’s all over,” she said.
Her diagnosis of five cancerous tumours followed a month later, and three weeks after that she was gone.
Cast off by the paper, I was free to return to my home, which I was nevertheless forced to sell.
I spent a lot more time in my kitchen as my flat languished on the market, comforted by the soothing euphony of Radio 4 and the ephemeral distractions of the Internet.
A buyer was finally found for my home. A year or so after, I heard Witherow had won the promotion of his life. He was now editor of The Times – the old Thunderer itself.
I also discovered the Daily Mail was peddling a line that Rupert Murdoch’s then-wife, Wendi Deng, was rumoured to be having an affair with none other than… Tony Blair (it was denied by all parties, of course).
I could just hear Claire Newell’s sweet voice repeat and repeat in my ear: “The Editor’s really keen on this, he just keeps asking me for an update.”
For a book universally declared as having ‘nothing in it’ I started to wonder whether a Dirty Digger was perhaps behind the whole venture. Was he preparing a platter best served cold? Had Murdoch used me to get Blair over the Deng ‘affair’?
I’ll never know, and without Leveson 2, those who do will remain unchallenged in their glass offices, consciences consoled by six-figure salaries.
And anyway, why should they care? They got away with it. Didn’t they?