A Former News of the World Reporter Blows the Lid on the Newspaper that the Duke of Sussex is gunning for
Before the summer holidays, Prince Harry went to war with Mirror Group Newspapers at the High Court, over allegations that Piers Morgan’s former newspaper unlawfully targeted him.
The judge is expected to hand down his findings in the next few months.
Now, the Duke of Sussex is launching the second part of his battle plan in his crusade for press reform – and going after Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, the News of the World and The Sun.
As his multi-million pound case moves into a key phase, the Prince is claiming that the papers destroyed the life of his mother Prince Diana by hiring shadowy Private Investigators that used unlawful surveillance.
And then they went for him personally, he argues – even though, at the time, he was just a kid.
His lawyers claim that Rupert Murdoch’s parent company News Group Newspapers stitched their client up by allegedly targeting Harry with landline phone tapping, medical records’ blagging and phone billing data obtained by deception.
This week (Tuesday October 10th) saw the latest court hearing in the NGN ‘phone hacking case’ at the High Court.
Today, Byline Investigates and Expose News begins a series of stories from an ex-News of the World reporter, who reveals how the pressure from editors above forced her to go beyond the pale.
However, unusually, this former journalist – who wants to remain anonymous – secretly fought back and began to sabotage stories in order to save her sanity, salve her conscience, and protect her moral code.
In effect, she became a one-woman resistance movement at the Death Star, the name that was given to the News of the World’s notoriously sinister newsroom at Murdoch’s Fortress Wapping London HQ, as it was then, on the banks of the Thames.
In a series of first-person pieces, exclusive to Byline Investigates and Expose News, the female reporter talks for the first time of her experiences at the paper.
Growing up, I’d always loved the News of the World: the investigations, exposes, and intrigue; the righting of wrongs; a glimpse into the darkness and shadow side of life. So, when I got a staff job at the paper as a news reporter, I was full of excitement and anticipation, mixed with a healthy dash of trepidation.
During my time at the paper, I covered the trivial, the serious, and the downright comical. I wrote kiss ‘n’ tells and went to swingers’ parties with hidden cameras in my handbag.
I reported on the trials of serial killers, rapists, and terrorists. I followed celebrities and politicians suspected of having affairs. I interviewed victims of high profile crimes. I stood stunned with the rest of the newsroom watching 9/11 unfold.
The lifestyle was highly seductive; there was never a dull moment. Every day, I met diverse and interesting people, all with a story to tell. I travelled all over the world on what are known in the trade as ‘foreigns’, dined in fancy restaurants and stayed in five star hotels, all with a substantial expense account. And on a Sunday, I’d open the paper and would feel jubilant if my name was in there – often bylined on top of a big exclusive – knowing that millions of people (about a quarter of the adult population, at the time) would read what I’d written. On the surface of it, the job had it all: glamour, stimulation, a heady feeling of power.
Yet my dream career soon started to sour. In the office, I struggled to fit into the aggressive, cut-throat environment, where failure and weakness were not an option. The only thing that mattered was getting the story, and the means always justified the ends. As has been well documented by now, people’s privacy was no obstacle, money was paid to public officials, thinly disguised blackmail was used at every opportunity, contracts were reneged on at the last minute, promises made and broken.
I worked at Fortress Wapping during the height of the News of the World’s glory days for six years, between 1999-2005 as a fully-fledged ‘staff’ employee, then for another year as a more-or-less full-time freelancer for them.
By ‘glory days’, I’m talking about money, reach, impact, and power. Story budgets were near bottomless, wages were high, and circulation was still strong. Around the turn of the Millennium, sales were holding at around four million every week – that equated with a total readership of approximately 12 million.
Knock-out, mind-boggling, ‘how-the-f**k-did-they get-that’ front pages were still a bedrock of tabloid culture – and the Screws never failed to deliver, week-in, week-out.
The paper was hands down the best at what it did.
When the News of the World turned up on doorstep or a breaking story, other tabloids all but threw in the towel, as they knew we had the money, resources, and experience to trump them every time.
The News of the World was as much part of popular culture as pop music, football and soap operas in the UK – and it set the story agenda.
After the paper came out on a Sunday, daily tabloids scrambled to follow-up on our stories, to hoover up any crumbs they could.
On a more sinister side, the paper had an extraordinary stranglehold over government and politics – mainly because it exercised a form of storytelling known as ‘blackmail model’ journalism.
The then New Labour administration was often very careful not to cross Murdoch’s interests, and MPs of all denominations feared speaking their mind in case their vices were spread across the pages of his papers.
If you’ve been following the long running ‘phone hacking’ cases at the High Court – including Prince Harry’s specific claim – you will note that my time there is slap bang in the middle of what’s known in legal terms as the ‘relevant period,’ which runs from 1995 to 2011.
This timespan, Prince Harry claims, was when the News of the World was most active in unlawful information gathering.
But more of that later.
As a reporter, I was under constant and extreme pressure from the newsdesk to both generate stories and stand them up.
Or, failing that, to pretty much make them up.
It was relentless and you were only as good as your last story. Bring in a splash on Sunday? Great. But what have you got on Monday?
Periodically, reporters were subject to byline counts, where all their bylines for the year were counted and a ‘league table’ compiled.
People at the lower end were – rightly – fearful for their jobs.
I worked day and night, at weekends, over holidays, Christmases and birthdays. My mobile phone was on 24 hours-a-day for years, waiting for the call that would tell me where I would be sent: now, today, tomorrow, next week. I had my passport and overnight bag with me at all times, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
I felt my control, agency and choices, diminishing with every week I spent there. My job became my life.
Plans were continually cancelled, friendships lost, relationships broken-up. I worked too hard, drank too much, lost weight, and didn’t get any sleep. I had panic attacks and was diagnosed by the company psychiatrist as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from working at the paper.
My life felt like it no longer belonged to me. Yet, more than that, I felt that I was in danger of losing some fundamental, integral part of myself. My conscience constantly bothered me. Was it right to doorstep the parents of a child who had just been murdered? To expose a celebrity cheating on his wife? To tell the world the whereabouts of child sex offenders who had served their time?
During my time at the paper I did all of these things with a heavy heart, and many apologies, yet I did them all the same, in desperation to get my name in the paper. I received letters telling me I was ‘scum’. Publicly, I laughed it off. Privately, I agreed.
As time went on, the moral and ethical dilemmas that I faced weekly were becoming increasingly difficult to deal with and assimilate. However, as my unease grew, so too somehow did my courage and I started to take a stand. Knock on the door of a bereaved family more than once? No. Try to persuade a reluctant rape victim to waive their anonymity? No.
Eventually, I got to a point where – when faced with an ethical dilemma I found intolerable – I started to purposely sabotage stories I was working on, so that they wouldn’t make the paper.
As a news reporter whose very job depended on their byline count, it was madness and probably career suicide.
But I’d reached the stage were I no longer cared. What was the worst that could happen? I’d get sacked? Fine. Why was I hanging on to a job where I had to continually wrestle with my conscience and compromise my morals? Surely, I was better than that.
In Part 2 of my series, I reveal how I worked on a dodgy front page story about Prince Harry, in a long-running and desperate attempt to link the teenage Royal to cocaine.