The Media Fund interviews Byline Investigates' lead investigator, Graham Johnson about a series of exposés detailing the actions of a former Sunday Times professional criminal. Words by Nick Gordon.
In the early part of 2018, Byline Investigates published a series of interviews with former “blagger of Fleet Street”, John Ford. The self-confessed “one-man crime wave” - turned whistleblower - gave damning accounts and insights into the malpractices of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sunday Times.
Ford earned the title blagger because of his past activities of impersonation and deception in order to acquire sensitive information on high-profile celebrities and politicians, such as John Prescott, Paul McCartney, Gordon Brown and even a member of the House of Lords.
For 15 years, John carried out his blags for The Sunday Times while it was under the editorship of John Witherow, who in 2012 was cross-examined as part of the Levenson inquiry.
Over those years, Ford acquired substantial amounts of personal information on persons of interest given to him by the newspaper, which was subsequently used for publication. Ford’s particular skill set was in such demand at that newspaper he is unable to recall his biggest blag as “there were so many”.
Through his series of interviews with Byline Investigates, John was seeking redemption for “the activities of his past”.
With much of the British media focused mainly on Brexit, much of the Leveson inquiry, and revelations made by Ford have somewhat flown under the radar. Meaning that oddly enough, the biggest revelations of corruption and fraud committed by the British news media establishment haven’t really made much of the news at all. Indeed, the public may be surprised to learn much has been going on in the absence of its scrutiny, and fewer still may realise its importance.
I interviewed Graham Johnson, Byline’s Head of Investigation who helped break John Ford’s story about his past criminal activity for The Sunday Times. I start by asking him what the most surprising aspect of Ford’s story was.
“It’s one of the best-organised crime stories that I’ve come across in 20 years of reporting on organised crime.”
Graham is also a veteran reporter, (former Investigations Editor, Sunday Mirror) having written about, and made documentaries on, drug cartels and gang-related crime in Britain (BBC, Vice). “This kind of trumps a lot of that, because it’s a white-collar crime on an industrial scale.”
How many of us would begin to contemplate, much less associate, a world-renowned newspaper with committing acts of organised crime? Such activities are usually thought to be the exclusive domain of sleazy mob bosses, racketeers and cartels, not high-society men in business suits running a news organisation.
For Graham, however, it’s simple, “It’s the scale of it (1000s of taskings); the volume of worth (£100,000s) and the length of time (15 years) and range of criminality: bank accounts to tax records, to phone bills and medical records.”
Typical with any large-scale criminal enterprise, culpability went high up the chain of command to the aforementioned John Witherow. As Graham states in no uncertain terms, “The Newspaper of Record, not only in Britain but in many parts of the world, is being run by an organised criminal. He goes on to add that, “there was an organised crime syndicate at the heart of the British press for between 10 – 20 years”. In other words, this tawdry approach to journalism was not exclusive to The Sunday Times, and was rife within the industry.
To date, The Sunday Times has made no mention via their publication regarding Ford’s claims. I asked Graham about this and whether it was the reaction he expected from them. “There is a wall of silence, because that is the immediate reaction of an organised crime group; to say nothing,” adding, “It was exactly the same when I was investigating drug dealers in Liverpool or fraud factories in South East London, they say nothing. In the movies, they call it ‘Omerta.’”
So, what brought about this degenerate malignancy that plunged British journalism into disrepute? Why did one of the most notable news publishers feel it had to resort to such dark arts, and for it to rely on abusing the public interest defence on many occasions? Graham slightly wrestles with the question before offering 2 key reasons: There was the “bully boy” culture which was rife at the time in Fleet Street that made journalists feel “extreme pressure to bring in stories”. The other, possible, crucial aspect being the cost-cutting that was taking place as print media struggled to keep pace with the digital world. “If you keep making journalists unemployed, the ones who are left resort to desperate measures”, Graham offers.
The word whistleblower is now somewhat synonymous with the likes of Edward Snowden and the risks faced when they come forward to tell their story. Given the sheer scale of criminality carried out at The Sunday Times and the amount of sensitive information John acquired for the paper over the 15-year period, did Graham and his team have any particular issues with the veracity and legality of John’s claims? And whether there were any safety concerns regarding their very own whistleblower?
Graham goes on to explain that as part of their own investigation into John, Byline spent 12-months trying to catch the former blagger out in a lie. As well as this, John was able to provide paperwork, emails and police dossiers to substantiate his assertions.
With regards to John’s safety, it was, thankfully, rather mundane. The bully boy culture Graham mentioned earlier bore similarities to that of the real-life bully who, once confronted, is in reality quite weak and fearful. Graham explains, “The Sunday Times is like a private boarding school. John Ford speaks to this. You’ve got these reporters, who think they’re really tough, but once you take them out their comfort zone, they’re not…we know that because of their cowardly silence… There’s more danger of you being attacked by an old lady,” said Graham, continuing, “They’re all worried [because] this could involve prison sentences… they face prison, and not one of them could handle it.”
I ask Graham if under this political climate justice can be achieved? His response is immediate and sobering in its candour.
“No, because the organised criminals who run the papers are still in place, and the politicians who rely on them are still their friends. When you’ve got that situation, the police don’t want to get involved because they’re worried about their pensions.”
As to what reforms Graham would like seen made in journalism, his biggest would be to “decimate” the editorial and legal staff or executives at the national newspapers with any links to criminal activity, as well as the board.
However, when it comes to regulating the press things won’t be as simple as Graham points out the ‘who watches the Watchmen’ type scenario, “It’s very hard to do without journalists being involved and at the moment a lot of journalists are trying to hide stuff.”
As a studio/street photographer who’d on occasion shoot celebrities along the red carpet, I had a particular dislike for celebrity photographers or paparazzi as they’re generally known. Aggressive, loud and boorish, I hated every moment spent on the carpet as I blasted away on my DSLR. It then came as a slight surprise when Graham says he has no particular feeling towards those journalists who committed these extremely intrusive acts. During our conversation it becomes clear who Graham holds accountable and, I sense, has a particular disdain for.
“Journalists at the coalface were only doing what was asked of them, they were working in the culture where that was allowed to happen. They were told to hack phones and use private investigators by their bosses… The news executives, the in-house lawyers and the board members, who were responsible for making that happen should be held to account.”
Graham reminds me of the archetypal street detective: he isn’t interested in the small fry or the hood rat; he wants the masterminds, the real orchestrators who enabled this to happen: The Rebekah Brooks’; the John Witherows; the Rupert Murdochs.
All too often the powerful are seldom held to account. From the military abuses at Abu Ghraib to the financial crimes of the 2008 banking crisis; the rampant child sex abuses that were committed, and subsequently covered up, by the Catholic church to the war crimes committed by prime ministers and presidents. On those infrequent occasions where “justice” is carried out, more often than not its purpose is merely symbolic and the public offered a sacrificial scapegoat in appeasement and deflection. Like a lizard that will shed its own tail in order to evade capture, this allows the real culprits of organised crime to escape.
In 2010, John Ford was arrested for committing crimes on behalf of The Sunday Times.
In early 2013, John Witherow was made Editor at its sister paper, The Times.
The Media Fund is a cooperative of over 40 partners, which exists to raise vital funds for quality, independent media in the UK. Please help us support independent media by becoming a regular donor of £5 or more.