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Confessions of a News of the World Reporter : Murdoch journo sabotaged her own story after pangs of conscience

Defunct tabloid writer reveals how she spiked her own exclusive – to save a soldier’s job and protect his family.

Stock image of a British soldier with face in deep shadow (Alamy)

IN THE THIRD part of our series from a News of the World whistleblower, Byline Investigates tells the story of tabloid reporter with a heart.

It’s rare in the bullyboy world of tabloid journalism (not least in the ‘Wild West’ days of the 1990s / 2000s) for a hack to share empathy with the people at the centre of their stories – or ‘punters,’ as they are known in the trade. More often than not, the targets of a scandal are about to have their lives destroyed. 

But it’s almost unheard of for the reporter to act out of a guilty conscience, and pull their own exposé before its published.

News of the World reporters have been likened to soldiers who follow orders, and are conditioned to dehumanise their prey.

Here is an example of a journalist who fought back, and did not go along with the programme.

British Army Coldstream Guards marching legs and polished boots. Moving at speed. Motion blur. Dress uniform on parade on red surface of The Mall (Alamy)

By Anonymous

One morning in April 2002 I had just settled down at my desk when a familiar shout came from the news desk: ‘Number please!’ The phrase was typically everyone’s cue to be incredibly busy: heads were buried in papers, computers stared at, mobile phones talked into. Letting my guard down for a moment, I caught the assistant news editor’s eye. I was doomed, and had little choice but to shout out my extension number. The only consolation was that Tuesday morning ring-ins tended to be from sober people.

Putting my earpiece in to record the conversation, I spent the next half hour listening to a woman who knew a married couple who were swingers. More precisely, they had sex with other couples, or singles, for money. Although the days in which swinging per se was newsworthy were long gone, the couples’ occupations arguably made it so: they were soldiers in the Armed Forces .

The woman gave me their names – let’s call them Ben and Ellie – address, car registration, and website address, and I told her I’d look into it. After checking the details on the website were legit, I approached the news desk.

‘Great story,’ enthused the news editor, ‘Call and arrange to hire them for the night, we’ll find someone to go with you.’

I was beginning to regret putting up the story. I’d forgotten Journalism 101: never suggest anything you’re not prepared to do yourself. But it was too late by then.

One phone call and ten minutes later, me and my ‘boyfriend’ had a date for that very evening, strictly as voyeurs, at Ben and Ellie’s house.

In a stroke of luck, I’d even been asked if I had any clothing preferences.

Thinking quickly, I’d answered: ‘Uniforms.’

‘That’s an easy one,’ Ben said, ‘I used to be in the military. I’ll dig out an old uniform.’

Used to be? Hmm. Was my information wrong? Or was Ben just being cautious? After I hung up, I voiced my concerns to the desk. Asking for Ben’s mobile number, they told me that they would find out whether the couple were still in the Armed Forces. It’s been well documented by now that more senior figures at the paper – and some reporters – routinely used Private Investigators, but not all journos were privy to this. So I don’t know what nefarious contacts they used to establish that the couple were indeed both still in the Armed Forces, but whoever it was came through quickly. We were on for tonight.

Once on the road, I rang my dad for a chat.

‘Where are you off to today?’ he asked.

‘I’m going to pay to watch a couple from the Armed Forces have sex,’ I told him.

‘Why?’ he asked, flummoxed.

‘For a story, obviously’.

He sounded bemused: ‘Where’s the story in that?’

‘Well, they’re in the Armed Forces , and they are selling sex on the net.’

‘So what? I still don’t get it. They’re not hurting anyone and you’re going to expose them to the whole country.’

After I hung up, I started to feel uneasy. He was right, of course. Being splashed all over the News of the World could have devastating consequences for Ben and Ellie. They could lose their jobs, which might mean them losing their home, and their professional and social reputations would be in tatters. Yet even knowing all of this, the power of the paper, the game, the competition, was still so powerful, so compelling. I knew I had a potential spread in the bag for Sunday and that wasn’t something to let go of easily.

That night – after some Dutch courage at the hotel bar and armed with a black handbag with a secret camera in it – myself and my colleague parked the car on an unremarkable housing estate in a Wiltshire town. This really was swinging in the suburbs at its best. We were both nervous as we knocked on the door of a neat little semi.

A sandy haired, slim, muscular man in his 30s answered the door, wearing an Armed Forces uniform (as promised) and a twinkling smile. I liked him immediately.

He put his finger to his lips and whispered:

‘Keep it quiet until we get inside, the kids are asleep.’

This was the first we were hearing about children being in the house. For the paper, it made for an even better story. For Ben and Ellie, it meant that the stakes were that much higher.

Once inside the minimal, Scandinavian-inspired living room – complete with family portraits of the couple with a young child and a newborn baby – the men introduced themselves and shook hands, which seemed oddly formal, given the circumstances.

Ben then gestured to the sofa: ‘And this is Ellie.’

Sat with her legs tucked underneath her, Ellie wore a short pleated grey skirt, a white blouse with several buttons undone, and a striped tie. Her long blonde hair was in bunches and her thumb in her mouth. A 30-something woman in a school uniform; a sight somehow both comical and offensive. 

After exchanging pleasantries about our journey, they led us to a bedroom at the back of the house, and it was straight down to business. At the bottom of the bed were two seats, clearly designer for voyeurs, where my colleague and I squeezed together, awkwardly holding hands, my handbag over the arm of the chair, pointing at the bed.

For the next hour or so we watched as the couple performed for us. They kissed, touched, and had sex in every conceivable, and some inconceivable, positions. It was exhausting just watching them. As they played, we tried to make encouraging sounds and suggestions. It was our very own personal porno, to direct according to our desires.

Yet far from feeling excited – let alone aroused – my emotions swung (so to speak) between faint embarrassment, bemusement, and boredom. What I was witnessing was a performance, an act. There was no passion in it. Stepping outside myself for a moment, looking down at the surreal scene, I thought: ‘This is my job? Surely I could have done better with my master’s degree?’

After what seemed an eternity, my colleague leaned over and whispered that infamous tabloid phrase in my ear:

‘Shall we make our excuses and leave?’

‘I think it would be bad manners to leave before they’ve come,’ I replied sardonically.

He nodded in reluctant agreement and settled back to watch the climax of the show.

Afterwards, Ellie put the kettle on – how very British – to make a post-coital cup of tea, and we relaxed as we chatted about ‘being in the lifestyle’. We didn’t have to probe much, as they were happy to tell us – as supposed ‘newbies’ – about their experiences. Talking candidly, they described how they started going to swingers parties to spice up their sex life. As a good looking couple in high demand, they soon realised that they could combine their hobby with making some extra cash.

And so they started advertising online, offering a range of services. Casually dropping swingers’ language into the conversation – soft swapping, hard swapping, moresomes, menage a trois – we stopped them occasionally for translations. The permeations seemed endless and, for them, both fun and lucrative. A no-brainer.

After paying them £100 cash and exchanging numbers, we took our leave. Back at the hotel, we watched just enough of the video to ascertain that the session had been successfully recorded. However, while evidentially sound, the dim lighting rendered the quality of the footage poor. We wouldn’t be able to get any clear grabs.

‘I’ll get onto the picture desk,’ my colleague said, ‘Try to get someone to snatch them before work in the morning.’

I had trouble sleeping that night. As a tabloid journalist it is so easy to get caught up in the chase, that you forget you are chasing real people. In this case, an eminently likeable, bright, fun, family-minded, warm couple. Moreover, I was struggling to see what they were doing wrong. They were simply looking to enhance their sex life and earn some extra money in the process. They weren’t breaking the law or hurting anyone. On the contrary, they were making people very happy indeed.

The next morning at breakfast I tried to put my personal feelings aside. I had a job to do, and – despite my misgivings – I’m ashamed to say that part of me still craved the byline. So we sat down to write. Just as we were finishing, the snapper called. He had been doorstepping the house and now had a photo of Ellie – wearing civvies, given she was still on maternity leave – taking their baby out in a pram. However, Ben had clearly left for work early doors. We needed to flush him out, and the picture desk were clear: for the story to make he needed to be in full Armed Forces uniform.

After some discussion, we decided that I should text Ben and ask for a one-on-one secret tryst, saying that my ‘boyfriend’ was at a work meeting in the area. If Ben took the bait – the bait being me – the snapper would wait out of sight, take a picture, and then ring me saying that the meeting had been cancelled. A text and a few minutes later, Ben had bitten, and we’d arranged to meet in the hotel carpark at 2pm, with Ben promising to pick up condoms on the way.

I spent the next couple of hours pacing my room, fighting a growing sense of unease and anxiety. At the appointed time I made my way to the car park and a few minutes later a sedan pulled up. The driver’s door sprung open and Ben hopped out … in plain grey tracksuit bottoms, trainers and a t-shirt. There was no hint of soldier about him. I should have been disappointed, but what I felt was pure unadulterated relief.

Spotting me, he jogged over, smiling. ‘Hey, good to see you,’ he said, leaning over to kiss me lightly on the lips, catching me off guard.

Waiting for my phone to ring, I stalled for time:

‘Joggers at work?’ I teased, ‘What did you say you do again?’

He hadn’t said, but answered with a clearly pre-pre-pared story:

‘Oh, I’m in sales, but I can get out and train sometimes at lunch.’

Just in time, my mobile trilled. I answered:

‘Hi sweetheart.’ I paused. ‘What, now? Oh. Ok, see you soon.’

A look of disappointment on my face, I turned to Ben:

‘His appointment’s been cancelled. He’ll be back in ten.’

Ben pulled me to him urgently:

‘Come to my house – Ellie’s out. I really want you.’

I pretended to consider it:

‘I can’t. He’ll be back any minute and he thinks I’m here. It’s too risky.’        

A look of touching regret on his face, he said: ‘I get it. Keep in touch?’

‘Sure.’

I updated the office afterwards.

‘Ok, the snapper needs to stay on him and get that picture,’ the deputy news editor told me, ‘you get back to the office.’

Back at Wapping, it was like returning from war. The story of our adventure had spread like wildfire, and we were both questioned extensively, and gratuitously, on every detail of our night as swingers. As the other reporters eagerly awaited the arrival of the video, I awaited the news of whether we had a picture of Soldier Ben. And I realised that I was dreading it.

My qualms about the story were growing by the minute. What right did we have to reveal their secret, jeopardise their jobs and home, and embarrass their families? For the paper and public it would be a bit of fun. A titillating read over breakfast. After that, it would be tomorrow’s chip paper. While for Ben and Ellie, and their children, it could be catastrophic. I simply couldn’t let them be exposed – either in the News of the World or any other paper (which they surely would be if the story didn’t make on Sunday, as the punter would tout the tale around elsewhere next week).

So I came up with a plan. Ringing a loyal friend, I told her:

‘I need a big favour.’

‘Name it,’ she said.

‘I’m going to give you a phone number. Can you call it and tell the guy, Ben, that the newspapers are onto him and his wife. Tell him not to wear his uniform anywhere public for the foreseeable and to be on his guard for any suspicious new client enquiries.’

‘And if he asks who I am?’

‘Just tell him you’re someone looking out for his best interests.’

‘I’ll do it now,’ she said.

I breathed a sigh of relief: ‘I owe you a large drink.’

By Saturday, the story had been spiked. Ben had clearly taken the advice to lie low. I had nothing to show for my week’s work – no byline in the paper – but I didn’t care. I knew I’d done the right thing, and it felt good.


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