A former News of the World Reporter reveals how an Editor lied about errors in ‘positive’ cocaine party swab
In the second part of our series from a News of the World whistleblower, Byline Investigates reveals how Rupert Murdoch’s ex-Sunday tabloid falsely made it look like Prince Harry attended a coke-fuelled polo party.
The story is relevant because the Duke of Sussex is currently suing the publisher of the News of the World and The Sun for targeting him, and his mum Princess Diana, using illegal newsgathering.
The next High Court hearing in his multi-million pound privacy case is likely to be next month, in November, when Prince Harry’s lawyers are likely to change some of the details of his claim, known in legalese as ‘amending his pleadings.’
Today, an ex-News of the World reporter, 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.
If you had told me at the start of a beautiful summer’s day in Warwickshire – investigating a possible link between a phone mast and cancer – that this would be a pivotal turning point in my career, I wouldn’t have believed it.
I was feeling good. I was going to investigate claims that a disproportionate number of women had developed breast cancer since the erection of a large mobile phone mast in their village. I was to interview them, look at the evidence they had gathered, and see if the paper might publicly back a campaign to get it taken down. I felt positive. For once, the might of the paper had the chance to make a positive difference to people’s lives.
However, after only an hour or so spent talking to women eager to tell their stories, my mobile rang. It was the news desk:
‘We need you to get to Gloucestershire asap.’
‘But I’m in Warwickshire doing the story about phone masts and cancer.’
‘Forget about that, we need you on something much more important – it’s about Prince Harry.’
I knew then that there was no arguing. Prince Harry was currently at the top of the paper’s agenda, having recently been ‘exposed’ for alleged underage drinking and smoking cannabis, a story I had nothing to do with.
And, frankly, I didn’t really want anything to do with this one. Yes, he was a prince, but he was also a boy who had lost his mother at a tender age, and had to deal with his grief in the spotlight of the media. Hadn’t he, and his family, been persecuted enough? But my personal opinion didn’t matter one iota; it was not my job to write in my voice, only the paper’s.
After hanging up, I sighed, and went to make abject apologies, poor excuses, and (probably hollow) promises to follow up at a later date. Jumping in the car, I hightailed it over to the Cotswolds where I met a fellow reporter who filled me in. Princes William and Harry would be attending a party at their local polo club that night, where there was certainly going to be alcohol and, most likely, drugs. We had been instructed to get into that party, come hell or high water, and it stood to reason that a male and female, posing as a couple, would stand a better chance than a lone male.
Our brief was as follows: get tickets to the ‘comic polo’ (on bikes) in the afternoon; blag our way into the evening afterparty; watch our subjects like hawks; and swab the ladies and gents’ toilets for traces of drugs. If all went according to the paper’s (entirely unrealistic) hopes and plans, the evening would culminate in us catching Prince Harry with a rolled up ten pound note shoved up his nose, snorting coke off the stomach of an underage aristocrat. It was absurd, but here we were.
After an afternoon spent watching ‘toffs’ (to use tabloid parlance) – including Princes Harry and William, and Zara Phillips (now Tindall) – on bicycles with polo sticks (a slightly bizarre activity to behold), all it took was a little chutzpah and a flash of our tickets from the polo and we were in the afterparty. I’m unclear what I had expected from a royal party – tuxedos? waltzes? champagne? – but I know what I hadn’t.
I felt like I’d travelled back in time to a school disco, complete with cheesy DJ, flashing lights, and a sticky floor. Granted, at my local comp there weren’t quite so many loafers, cut-glass accents, and royalty, but the basics were the same. It was just young people doing what they do: drinking, laughing, dancing, flirting. And god knows, these boys could do with letting their hair down in the company of trusted friends more than most.
After getting a couple of drinks from the bar, we then did what tabloid reporters do best: we observed. Prince William, just out of his teens at the time, maintained a low profile, chatting to friends, drinking mineral water, and politely fending off the occasional drunken girl. While Prince Harry, then aged 17, acted more like a typical teen. More gregarious than his brother, and less guarded, he drank bottles of Smirnoff Ice, regaled fellow partygoers with stories, and flirted with numerous girls throughout the evening.
This included a blonde girl, who sat on his knee for a time, before accompanying him round the back of the clubhouse to sit in a red Volkswagen Golf, under the discreet but watchful eye of his minders. Royal brothers, yes, but – as their mother Princess Diana once remarked – two very different characters.
After taking in the party, and the princes, for a while, it was time for the key part of the paper’s masterplan: swabbing the toilets. My colleague had been to WH Smith earlier in the day to buy Sellotape, clear plastic sheets, and labels. Our instructions were to use the sticky sides of strips of Sellotape to press against any surfaces that drugs might be taken on (tops of loos, shelves behind them). We were then to stick these onto the plastic sheets, labelled with the time, to be picked up first thing in the morning and sent immediately to the lab. I followed the protocol but didn’t see anything either on the surfaces, or on the Sellotape I stuck to them, that looked remotely suspicious.
On completing my mission, I returned to the party. My colleague, meanwhile, went to see whether there was any further action around the back of the clubhouse. On his return, my fellow reporter held out his hand: ‘Look what I found out on the grass.’ In his palm was a folded up piece of paper which looked like it was from a beer bottle. Inside was some suspicious looking white powder. Wrapping it up carefully again, he put it with the samples from the toilets to go off to the lab.
After the party had finished around 1am, we updated the night news desk with the events of the evening – such as they were – and went straight back to our hotel and to bed. The next morning we reconvened early in my room to write. Frankly, it was a struggle. Because what had we witnessed, really? Two young men at a party, having fun with friends. Granted, they were royalty, and yes, one was drinking underage (show me a 17-year-old who doesn’t), but other than that? Not a great deal. Even as tabloid hacks, trained in the art of hyperbole, there simply wasn’t much to be spun from this.
Ringing the news desk for guidance, we were told to anchor the story around Harry’s ‘excessive’ drinking – around six bottles of Smirnoff Ice, equal to nine units of alcohol – and the girls he’d flirted with outside ‘to escape prying eyes’ (that would be us). So we wrote and filed it, and started on the journey back to the office.
Thinking about it on the drive to London I reckoned that the story, as it stood, wouldn’t make more than a page lead. To my eyes this was a result. I could truthfully say I’d done my job to the best of my ability, and I’d get my name in the paper – like an addict getting a high – but the story shouldn’t be particularly damning to the princes’ reputations.
However, I had all but forgotten about the drug tests that had been sent off, and when we arrived back on Saturday afternoon, the story had assumed proportions all of its own. The results were in from the lab. While the ladies’ loos that I’d swabbed had come up negative, the gents’ had come back positive for cocaine, as had the wrap found in the grounds of the club.
That changed everything; suddenly we had a splash on our hands. The story had morphed from: Teenager drinks vodka and flirts with girls (shock), to: HARRY AT DRINK AND DRUG BASH. While the subbed version of our story was careful not to say that Harry himself had been taking cocaine – ‘shamed prince downs vodka as toffs snort cocaine’ – the implication was clearly there, and I wasn’t happy about it.
I was soon to become even unhappier. While the story was being finalised, ready for press, one of the news desk messaged me and my colleague and asked us to meet him downstairs. Looking at one another, we raised our eyebrows, shrugged, and got up to go. Downstairs, our boss gave us a serious look: ‘You did wipe down the surfaces in the bathrooms before the party last night didn’t you?’ I went blank for a moment, while I thought through the implications of the very loaded question: if we hadn’t wiped the surfaces down beforehand, then the traces of cocaine found could have been from before the party.
My heart sank, as the truth was that I hadn’t been told by anyone to wipe anything, and it hadn’t occurred to me to do so. The silence was quickly broken, however, as my colleague replied, ‘yes’. Turning to me, my boss reframed his question as a statement: ‘You DID clean them.’ And, I’m ashamed to say, I nodded my silent assent. In the split second I’d had to think about it, I’d reasoned – in a shabby attempt to assuage my conscience – that as the ladies’ had tested negative for drugs anyway, it really made no difference.
When the first editions of the papers landed late that night and I saw my name on the splash – something most reporters at Sunday tabloids can only expect perhaps a few times a year, if that – I should have felt jubilant. Yet I felt anything but. The tabloid vendetta against Prince Harry had been further fuelled, and I felt angry with myself for having had any part in it, and allowing myself to be coerced. I should have had the courage of my convictions and spoken up. Would it have changed the story? No. Would it have meant losing my job? Probably. But I should have had the integrity to do it anyway, consequences be damned.
Over the next week, or so my feelings of unease grew. I’d been in the job over two years and I was finding it increasingly difficult to square with my conscience. Each week seemed to present a new ethical dilemma to be reckoned with. It was exhausting, and I didn’t feel I had it in me to fight any longer. So I quit, agreeing to work out my three month notice period.
In the immediate aftermath I felt relief. My family and friends were fully supportive of the decision and I hoped to take some well-deserved time off before getting a job at a nice broadsheet or in publishing. And yet … infuriating, maddeningly, flatteringly, as my three months were nearly up, the news editor took me to the pub. Over double whiskeys and vodkas, he told me what a valued member of the team I was. How far I’d come, and could go. How he didn’t want to lose me. Would I please reconsider? And, I’m afraid to say, I did.
I’d become institutionalised. I hadn’t even looked for, let alone found, another job to go to. The News of the World was, by then, my world. I had a love/hate relationship with it, but – like a romance you know is doomed, but you still can’t let go of – I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave. And so I made a pact with myself: I would stay but it would be on my terms. In the future, when I felt something was wrong, I vowed to take action. And from then on, that’s pretty much what I did.
Much has been made recently of Prince Harry’s phone being allegedly hacked, and Private Investigators being used to illegally target him.
The Duke of Sussex also claims that various newspapers allegedly obtained of medical records.
During my time at the News of the World, I was involved in only one story about Prince Harry – this one, that I have written about here.
I personally used no illegal methods for this story – and neither did my colleague, who worked with me on this job. What I did was simply old fashioned tabloid journalism: I wrote what I observed.
If there were any illegal methods used by other journalists at the paper in relation to this story, I was not privy to them. I do not know whether any editors, who were involved, used PIs on this story.
On a final note, in his autobiography, Spare, published earlier this year, the now Duke of Sussex told – I refuse to use the word ‘admitted’ as it carries a negative connotation – how he first tried cocaine at the age of 17 ‘at someone’s house during a hunting weekend’ and on subsequent unspecified occasions. He says at that age he was ‘willing to try almost anything that would alter the pre-established order’. So did Harry take cocaine at the polo party? Only he knows that. But, when all’s said and done, what business was, or is it, of ours anyway?