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The Wapping Whistleblower: 15 years hacking and blagging for The Sunday Times

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Byline InvestigationsGraham Johnson, head of Byline Investigations
The Wapping Whistleblower: 15 years hacking and blagging for The Sunday Times
The Sunday Times employed a private investigator and expert ‘blagger’ to penetrate the private lives of thousands of victims over a 15-year period and steal their data.

Former actor, writer and comedian John Ford says he was paid up to £40,000 a year by Rupert Murdoch's flagship broadsheet, The Sunday Times, to unlawfully obtain phone bills, recover ex-directory phone numbers and penetrate private financial material, such as banking and mortgage data, of high-profile politicians, celebrities and members of the public. By his own admission, several email accounts were successfully hacked, with each job done “to order”  on the instructions of some of the prestigious newspaper's journalists.

John Ford first approached Byline Investigations a year ago when he was considering blowing the whistle. For five months, our investigations team has been checking out his story. 

The evidence that has come to light reveals he routinely accessed bank accounts and intimate data.

The true number of his victims – amassed over his 15 years working for the newspaper – may never be known, but almost certainly runs into the thousands.

Ford has identified over 20 journalists from whom he took instruction. The editor, during the period of his activity at The Sunday Times, was John Witherow. Following the Leveson Inquiry, he was promoted to the editorship of Murdoch's senior sister paper, The Times of London. 

This was criminal deception on an industrial scale, masked behind a veneer of public interest research, Ford told Byline Investigations.

One of One

Ford's work for The Sunday Times targeted a vast array of politicians, celebrities and captains of industry, as well as members of the public caught up in running news stories the newspaper was chasing. 

In many cases, Byline Investigations has been unable to identify any sound public interest justification for the criminality being carried out. 

Ford was never offered or given legal advice by the newspaper, but he believed, at the time, that his work was in the public interest. 

Declining to comment on the specifics of his allegations, The Sunday Times told the BBC that it strongly rejected the accusation that it has retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally, and said it has always been its expectation and practice that its contractors work within the law.

However, Ford's account tells a different story. 

Many of his targets were senior politicians. He obtained the confidential records and personal information of at least two former prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The then leader of the opposition, William Hague, was also a victim. The phones and bank accounts of cabinet ministers and government aides were monitored for weeks at a time, over a period of years, and the private information obtained was used for exclusive stories in The Sunday Times. In addition, a sophisticated refuse collecting operation, or ‘bin spinning’ campaign, was developed in which household waste was stolen from the homes and offices of high-value targets.

Other victims in the public eye included Sir Paul McCartney and Lady Heather Mills. But the privacy of thousands of members of the public was also routinely invaded.  

Ford has identified over 20 journalists from whom he took instruction. Their boss at the time, John Witherow, is still Rupert Murdoch’s most senior and trusted editor in the UK. 

Upmarket Espionage

Speaking for the first time, John Ford said he now deeply regrets his actions.

"Ordinary people lost their jobs and were financially ruined, as a direct result of the publication of a wide variety of stories," he told Byline Investigations. "The inquiries on stories led to family breakdowns and divorce.

"It caused suspicion amongst friends and public humiliation when their private lives were splashed all over The Sunday Times, often for no good reason. And many of the victims never knew how their lives were turned upside down – because it was all done in a clandestine but highly structured way."

"I was employed by The Sunday Times as a freelance, to carry out the longest-running, most organised and grossly invasive spying operation in Fleet Street’s history."  

Ford has come forward because he wants to apologise to those who were affected, and ensure that those who gave him the orders are held to account. He is also keen to assist the Information Commissioner as a ‘white hat’ blagger to plug the various gaps and holes in legislation, regulation and practices that still exist today.

After learning of Byline Investigations' exclusive, the BBC featured John Ford on its 10 o'clock news.

A spokesperson for The Sunday Times told its media editor, Amol Rajan, that the paper had "a strong record of investigative journalism over decades and has employed many contributors and researchers to work on stories, or parts of stories".

"The paper strongly rejects the accusation that it has in the past retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally," it added.

"Some allegations related to the research work of John Ford have been aired previously and we cannot comment on the specifics of these new allegations which all predate 2011."

The Sunday Times has also said that it has always been its expectation and practice that its contractors work within the law.

But, Ford says he was deliberately kept ‘off-the-books’ for over a decade, despite working near full-time and exclusively for The Sunday Times from 1995 until his arrest over a Sunday Times-ordered crime in September 2010.

Complaints about his activities were, according to Ford, derided by some of Murdoch's newspaper journalists.

"Following the publication of some stories, some of the more media savvy victims, who suspected criminal interception, wrote to the newspaper to complain," he explained. "There would be laughter in the office, and it was always explained that one of John Witherow’s standard letters had been issued by return to them. The letter from editorial always stated that 'no staff member of The Sunday Times was involved in any such activity' or words to that effect."

"Technically, this was true, as I was always - despite some promises - maintained as a freelancer. But The Sunday Times was in fact intimately involved and the victims were still harassed illegally, it was as simple as that."

It is the first time that one of Rupert Murdoch’s high-brow broadsheets has been fully dragged into the hacking and blagging scandal. But, Mr Ford claims his work was not a sideline or incidental. 

"I was employed by The Sunday Times as a freelance, to carry out the longest-running, most organised and grossly invasive spying operation in Fleet Street’s history," Ford explained to Byline Investigations.

"All senior editors and most of the reporters at The Sunday Times knew that I obtained illegal phone billing data and bank account transactions, almost every week, for stories. I ‘obtained’ (which is another way of saying ‘stole’) confidential documents and private property on the specific and direct instructions of Sunday Times’ journalists.

"And this wasn’t for the News of The World or The Sun," he continued. "It wasn’t for a tabloid – this was for The Sunday Times, one of the most prestigious titles in the world."

The Insight Team

Some of Ford's illegal news gathering can be defended as being closely focused on, and following, a specific lead to investigate matters worthy of genuine public scrutiny. Breaches of privacy and data laws led to some stories being published which were justified in the public interest. But, many were "fishing expeditions" or activities in which the public interest defence was not commensurate with the intrusive methods used.

Ford says he fraudulently accessed William Hague’s bank account on-and-off for a month – for no good reason. The "fishing exercise" was a bid to find out if the former Tory leader had bought a present for a female friend.  

"A good deal of my work was in the public interest, and did play some useful part in revealing wrongdoing," Ford told Byline Investigations. "Nevertheless, as I have looked at back over my career, I have come to realise more and more that a large proportion of the work could not be justified in the public interest and was illegal, intrusive and ultimately wrong."

Ford says he fraudulently accessed William Hague’s bank account on-and-off for a month – for no good reason. The "fishing exercise" was a bid to find out if the former Tory leader had bought a present for a female friend. 

Ford was instructed, on this occasion, by the newspaper's well-regarded Insight team, which he said had received a false tip that Hague had bought a gift from a shop in Hammersmith, west London. As a result, Ford discovered Hague’s salary, credit card bills and direct debits and much more, whilst a member of the news team spent days observing the shop and chatting to its staff.

"A world, no longer governed by that kind of journalism, is a more civilised world. I realise that now," Ford told Byline Investigations. "I have never hacked a voicemail, but I effectively hacked into thousands of bank accounts. I have developed hundreds of intimate profiles on people."

Another story about William Hague resulted in Ford recovering a copy of a room bill from The Hotel du Vin, where it had been suggested that the Conservative MP had shared a room with his researcher in 2010. This story was never published, but Ford said the information had its place: "This was not uncommon, a piece of kompromat was always a useful thing for management to have in the safe ready to deploy at any key political moment," he told Byline Investigations.

The Lure of Public Interest

For Ford, the draw of working for The Sunday Times was its reputation as a well-respected broadsheet. 

But, while he could deceive himself that he was acting honourably by choosing to focus on the newspaper's venerable brand, criminality was lurking under its respectable surface. 

The 52-year-old former actor "blagged" his way into the bank account of Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister. Ford even changed the account’s passwords to deliberately block Mandelson’s own access.

"It was 20 years ago that my life as blagger began," Ford explained. "Looking back over that period, whilst I was under the umbrella of The Sunday Times, I felt secure in having a respectable job. Through exposing hypocrisy and malpractice in business and government, which I certainly helped to do from time to time, I felt empowered, doing a responsible job holding power to account.

"I viewed the work that I was doing on behalf of The Sunday Times as in the public interest, I thought I was holding power to account," he told Byline Investigations. But this wasn’t the case."

The 52-year-old former actor "blagged" his way into the bank account of Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister. Ford even changed the account’s passwords to deliberately block Mandelson’s own access, giving the investigator a free hand to probe the transactions without fear of being discovered. He had done the same years earlier whilst cutting his teeth on Jonathan Aitken, even remembering using the term “hubris”, finding the irony amusing.

"I joined them as a naive person who was delighted to work for a national brand," Ford said. "I was told the editor wanted 'these kinds of stories.' I was never given any legal advice, as to the legality of obtaining private and confidential records by deception. Occasionally the journalists who instructed me to do a blag reassured me that what I was doing did not break the law. If I asked they would say 'we’ve spoken to Alistair [Alistair Brett, The Sunday Times’ then in-house lawyer] and he says it’s ok'. Of course, I did not know whether they were telling the truth. I had no option but to take their word for it."

Byline Investigations is not suggesting that any lawyer in reality authorised these activities, nor has it seen any evidence to that effect. 

The Taint Across All Murdoch Papers

Murdoch’s British newspapers and international reputation are still tainted by the first phone hacking scandal, which led to the closure of the News of The World in 2011. 

The Sunday Times’ down-market tabloid sister paper The Sun is fighting off multiple allegations of phone hacking. In the High Court, the paper has shelled out tens of millions of pounds in damages to victims and legal costs, without admitting liability.

These new revelations the will rock Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which is struggling to deal with an ongoing series of corruption scandals. In the US, Fox News has been hit by a string of sexual harassment cases, kept secret for many years by shadowy legal mechanisms, including pay-offs and gagging clauses. Recently, the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) issued preliminary advice against Fox’s bid for a further 61% of Sky stock, unless adequate safeguards to protect the plurality of ownership of news sources are provided.  

"I realise that while I have never hacked a voicemail message, I did hack into hundreds of bank accounts and developed hundreds of intimate profiles on people."

Ford was once a big supporter of News International and Rupert Murdoch's modus operandi. 

"Ironically, I was once a supporter of Murdoch because I viewed his model as good business," he said. "But now I'm angry about the culture, which is adversarial, from the top down.

"Prior to the Leveson Inquiry, I always felt protected, because I thought I had somehow acted legally because of the public interest. Two things happened to make me realise that I was wrong, and had been used by The Sunday Times.

"Firstly, I was arrested for fraud in September 2010, just after the New York Times published its follow up to the Guardian 2009 story about hacking. That led to a very stressful two years for me, and made me realise that the promises I had been given by The Sunday Times  that what they were asking me to do were legal things  was a fiction. Then, when the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry came along, I learned where the boundary really lay between the public interest and illegality.

“When I was arrested, it was a relief."

A Talent Diverted

Ford began his relationship with The Sunday Times in 1995, when he worked at a private investigations firm called Chimera, based in Croydon, south London. Ford was an out-of-work actor, who had fallen into the shadowy world of dark arts because he could use his drama training to mimic voices, invent role play, and act out scenarios to ‘blag’ victims' banks and utility accounts, over the phone. 

"My ability to read motive, and deconstruct situations, meant that I could work at a very high-level."

His private education and university degree gave him an edge over his colleagues often recovering drug addicts  who had turned their manipulative street smarts into a job.

"When I first got into ‘The Industry,’ as it is known, I leant on my dramatic training to get results." Ford explained. "My ability to read motive, and deconstruct situations, meant that I could work at a very high-level. I was also familiar with current affairs, so I could talk with confidence to The Sunday Times’ journalists about news stories on the agenda, that particular week.

"I started-off by working on commission for a company called Chimera, run by an ex-squaddie who worked with the paper. Then, I was privately approached by a Sunday Times reporter in 1998 and provided with a number of projects which, when completed, were not invoiced and all fees charged were settled in cash. The funds were signed-for using the alias 'Alan Aynon' with a fake address and handed over in a brown envelope.

“As the amount of work increased, I was requested to invoice directly and to receive payment to a bank account by BACS transfer," Ford continued. "My work was generally invoiced directly to the individual journalist who had commissioned the research. As time passed, my services were used more widely and I was invoicing an increasing number of senior journalists in the newsroom. That’s how it started.”

Ford is keen to stress that he never stole money from the bank accounts of his targets, nor did he hack voicemails

"I realise that while I have never hacked a voicemail message, I did hack into hundreds of bank accounts and developed hundreds of intimate profiles on people," he told Byline Investigations. "A substantial proportion of my findings were never published, presumably just kept as political ammunition.

"Known as ‘The Industry,’ the blagger community defined itself as bearing 'honour amongst thieves,' Ford said. "Despite gaining access to passwords, bank codes etc of the super-rich, there is no known example of a newspaper blagger acting to defraud a target financially. Cracking the story, with the retention of the 'killer fact' was the hypo maniacal goal. There was a perceived honour amongst blaggers that what we did was an art form and regarded ourselves as artists and problem-solvers.”

Byline Investigations will provide much more detail on John Ford's revelations and targets in the weeks to come. Please support our work by pledging on the tree buttons (to the right in desktop browser)

Meanwhile, the team behind the hit podcast series Untold: the Daniel Morgan Murder have launched a new series based on John Ford's story. Support their crowd-funder here. 

#Rupert Murdoch, #Sunday Times, #John Ford, #Hacking, #Blagging, #Data Protection, #Media

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