Confessions of a Tabloid Terrorist
You might remember Graham Johnson (pictured above). In the past, we've called him up to discuss the child gangs turning the streets of Liverpool into a variety of hell populated with burning cars, IEDs, and cheap guns. The time before that, it was just after the student riots in the UK (remember those?), when he successfully predicted the chaos that turned Britain into a rioter's playground in August last year. Graham has a knack for seeing these things coming.
For a large chunk of his life, Graham worked as a self-confessed "tabloid terrorist." He worked for Rebekah Brooks during her infamous stint as the editor of the News of the World. During this time, he did a lot of very nasty things, which he has decided to write down and release in his new book Hack: Sex, Drugs, and Scandal from Inside the Tabloid Jungle.
He invited us to give him a call for a quick chat about the book that, in his own words, "could potentially destroy [his] reputation." Phone-hacking is one of the lighter motifs running through Hack. Between booting in people's doors and utilizing psychological warfare methods strikingly similar to those used by the US military in Guantanamo (that's not an exaggeration), Hack reads a bit like a potential script for a film about the Leveson Inquiry that hasn't been made yet. Except that Rebekah Brooks is Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate and we're all Keanu Reeves' wife getting molested by Lucifer. It's that brutal.
Anyway, here's the interview. It's an exclusive, BTW.
VICE: Hey Graham. What's your book Hack all about?
Graham: Hack is about all the disgraceful and terrible things that I did when I was a "tabloid terrorist" between 1995 and 2005. I was part of that first generation, in the mid-90s, of people who used private detectives on an industrial scale, to tap into people's phone records, medical records, bank accounts...
Were there any especially heinous things you got up to?
Yeah. In the book I do reveal specific occasions. Once, I remember, there was an England and Premiership soccer star, Steve McManaman. He was big in the 90s, he played for Liverpool.
I remember him.
His mom was dying of cancer and I had to go and lean on Steve McManaman and try to blackmail him into admitting it.
What? How did you do that?
Using a really harsh form of emotional blackmail: going to him and saying, "Listen, we know that your mom's got cancer. You don't want to speak about it. We don't care about that, you tell us or we're gonna put it in the paper, anyway."
How did you carry it out?
I had to kind of bluff him that we knew this was true. It was a really shameful dance I had to go through. I had to go to this small two-up-two-down in Liverpool and covertly bully him in his living room, while his mom was hiding in the kitchen. Then she came out. He kinda had to wheel her out, like one of those women in a concentration camp or something, who was getting an inspection, and say, "Look, here's me mom, she's alive. She hasn't got cancer." I had to look her up and down and interrogate her. It was a really terrible thing that I did.
Do you regret it?
Yeah, of course I regret it. It's not a natural thing to do, to treat someone like that. At the time, you're so brainwashed by the corporate culture that you are like a stormtrooper let loose, to go around destroying lives and kicking in doors and leaning on people. That was what I did, that was my job.
Do you mean kicking down doors metaphorically or literally?
Both. I remember on one occasion—I was kinda like a News of the World enforcer-type person—their was the brother of a really famous soap star who was also married to a huge rock star. The allegation was that the brother was on drugs and he was selling a bit of gear on the side. The only problem was we hadn’t proved it. So my job was to go round and literally kick in his door and drag him out and put him under so much pressure that he would fold under questioning and admit it. Me and this ex-SAS person.
Did you actually kick it in?
I gave it a good go. I was with a middle-aged veteran News of the World photographer and even he was scared with all the noise and commotion and the violence involved. And, you know, shouting through the mailbox, it's like a form of psychological warfare. It's a form of swarming. I know that if I turn up on your doorstep and I shout through the mailbox and kick your door in, am really intimidating, and keep it up for a long time, it's like being tortured. There's lots of evidence to back this up if you read all the American military manuals on it, which is where I got it all from. It's called reverse engineered survival techniques.
Americans use it in Guantanamo and it does work. You can create a hurricane in someone's mind and they become susceptible to making confessions. That was my job. I know of another case where a News of the World reporter pretended to be—and this is a criminal offense—a cop, booted in someone's door, and staged a fake police raid.
So would it have been a case of being told by your editor, Rebekah Brooks, to "do this specifically" or "get this information, do it how you want"?
Yeah, it was the latter. There was a culture of fear at the News of the World. Editors didn't have to make it explicit about what they wanted. We knew what was wanted, and it was down to us to find a way of doing it. Some people were very creative. Some people would break the law, pull records, do phone hacking.
What I used to do, this is another example of swarming, the CIA do this: there was a woman, she was a fraudster who pretended she had cancer in order to set up a charity to raise money for herself. Only she didn't really have cancer. We pulled the medical records, but she wouldn't admit it and you need a confession. So I paid a load of freelance photographers to swarm her, to bang on her door, hose her down with flashes, bang on her windows—to be really intrusive. Then I turn up and go, "Listen, you can either talk to me, or you can talk to this pack of disgraceful, unruly press photographers. I'm the good guy, these are bad guys. What you gonna do?"
What did she do?
She chose me, we conned a confession out of her. I was a really good. I could do that week in and week out to get stories.
That's a relatively justifiable target, I suppose, although the method is dishonest. But interrogating Steve McManaman's cancer-stricken mother is horrible. I've noticed you use the words "that was my job" and "I had to" a lot. How do you or did you justify doing those things?
Like most journalists, you go into the profession wanting to be a campaigning journalist. I always looked up to John Pilger. But your editor goes, "Forget about all that, we want you to do stories about skateboarding parrots and Abi Titmuss and Vanessa Feltz. We don't want you to do great campaigns against corporations, we want stories about Big Brother." You start off as a creative, free-thinking person, but you turn into a corporate functionary.
I guess there was a lot of pressure.
It was like the Death Star in Star Wars, fear and repression were tangible, it was like atmospheric pressure under the sea. I remember some girl trying to commit suicide at the News of the World Christmas party. You justify it because you are a stormtrooper. You know, "This is my job, I don't care. I don't care what you think or whether this is immoral." The vice, the immorality has got to be in you and I take responsibility for that. When I started off as a reporter, I had no morals. I was driven by passion and greed and lust and an extremist form of ambition. I went from being a bad reporter and changed to being a good reporter.
How did that happen?
It started in 1997 when I was asked by Rebekah Brooks, she was the deputy editor of the News of the World then, to go and find the beast of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, dressed as Sherlock Holmes.
She was completely serious about this, it was a big series, I was gonna fly around the world to track down the Abominable Snowman, the Yeti, I was gonna go in a submarine to find the Loch Ness monster, Shergar—the missing horse, which was killed by the IRA—and find Lord Lucan. It was a ridiculous idea, but she was the boss. I went down to Cornwall with a senior investigative photographer on the paper called Steve Grayson. We went to the local zoo and we photographed a puma in a cage, sent that in and said, "That's the beast of Bodmin Moor." You know, "Fuck you. I don't want to spend any more time in the cold and rain."
Not Steve's pic, but the "real" Beast of Bodmin Moor (allegedly)
Well, they thought it was the beast of Bodmin Moor and were gonna spend £300,000 on a TV commercial to advertise it. We confessed to the whole scam and the photographer was sacked and I resigned and went to work for the Sunday Mirror. I re-evaluated: I'm not gonna fabricate any stories any more, I'm not gonna blackmail anyone or do any bad things, I'm gonna be a good reporter. Slowly; it took untill about 2005 for me to gradually build up and become a good sort of moral reporter.
You do mostly crime reporting now, right?
That's right, yeah.
How did the Sunday Mirror compare to News of the World?
The Sunday Mirror was a less extreme place—they had windows in the office. The executives there were a lot kinder. I became the Investigations Editor there and we did some really big, hard-hitting stories, some big drug cartels and child slavery, some war reporting. But even then… About ten years ago they started to get into celebrities, now the Sunday Mirror and the Mirror is a shadow of itself. It's fucked. The Sun doesn’t even consider it a rival now.
Do you think the hacking scandal and—on a wider scale—the Leveson Inquiry, has or will curb things like the fabrication of stories, the use of blackmail and breaking down doors?
I suppose the Leveson Inquiry has revealed the kind of hidden, dark culture of those extreme things like blackmail and people lying. But it hasn't blown it wide open because there's a huge amount of story fabrication that goes on, not only in the way that I did it. I would never do it now, I gotta make that clear. I may have had the facts wrong in stories since then. But I have never gone out to stunt up a story and would never dream of doing that today. But there's a huge amount of it that did go on. Not only reporters, but some of the biggest names on Fleet Street and on TV as well. Also, on a strategic level, there's a huge amount of military propaganda and corporate propaganda that the papers carry without question. Even the BBC, the way it reports stuff from Afghanistan and Iraq and all that, a lot of it's total bullshit. I'm surprised all of that hasn't come out.
Are blackmail and the uglier practices of tabloid journalism still going on?
In the papers I work for now, it doesn't happen. It was just that poisonous culture of the News of the World. But it does go on in some Fleet Street newspapers and up until last year the blackmail model was still strong. I did stories for the Sunday Mirror a few years ago where I was still leaning on people. Not to the same extent, but if you caught a celebrity having sex and on cocaine you'd say, "We'll leave out the cocaine, if you confess to the fucking," because if you put the cocaine in they lose all their sponsorships, especially if they're a soccer player.
Wayne and Coleen Rooney
Which soccer player?
Well, this example doesn’t involve cocaine, but it involves manipulation of the facts to help the celebrity. I remember, for the Sunday Mirror, I bought CCTV tapes of Wayne Rooney in a brothel for £200,000. I know that a kind of horse trading went on between the Sunday Mirror and Wayne Rooney's manager Paul Stretford and his PR people, whereby we'd leave some of the gory details out so it didn't completely fuck him, in exchange for a confession. He actually confessed to it and the dates were changed, I think that's what it was, on when Wayne Rooney was in the brothel so at the time it didn't look like he was going out with this Coleen McLoughlin.
But he was?
He was. Yeah, of course he was. Then mysteriously, even though they'd paid for the tapes and the plan was to put them on TV and sell them on, they never appeared. So I assume that they struck some kind of deal with Wayne Rooney and his people to keep them under wraps. They might have even sold them back to Wayne Rooney. Those kind of under the counter deals are always going on.
I suppose it's almost ironic, that aside from the ugly methods used to get the story, even then it's only a half-truth that comes out in the end, anyway. They could have just shown the tapes and not bothered with the confession, but then I guess they'd never get a story out of them again.
No, you're totally right. That's where tabloid newspapers have gone off the rail. The Daily Mirror in the 70s was probably the best newspaper that's ever existed. But what happened is that Rebekah Brooks brought in that model of compromising the truth, of getting into bed with celebrities. Instead of just publishing the tapes, instead of just publishing the story and saying, "Listen, this is what happened," you struck a bargain with celebrities to put a half-truth in the paper because she wanted to stay in bed with all her PR friends like Matthew Freud. All these powerful people, because celebrity became all-powerful in the late 90s. It actually became a political power within the country. Some of these soap stars are the most powerful people in the country, if you think about how much influence they have.
I guess so. Are you expecting there to be any backlash from the book, either from within the industry or from the public? Or anyone else?
Well, if there is a backlash, there is. But, listen, it's natural to tell the truth and the truth can't hurt you. In my opinion, once you've made a decision to tell the truth there's no point in being selectively truthful. There's stuff in that book that doesn't serve my interests and makes me look really bad and could potentially destroy my reputation. I'm not saying I'm anything special. But once you start telling how you got stories it might reduce your credibility. If that happens it happens, you've just gotta accept your fate.
Are there are any revelations in the book that are going to put people in the shit?
Well yeah, there's revelations about Rebekah Brooks' behavior and about the two editors who recently got whacked—the Sunday Mirror's Tina Weaver and the Daily Mirror’s Richard Wallace. They won't like it. There's lots of stuff in there about a lot of the people I worked with and they won't like it. But the way I see it is, they dished it out for years and you've gotta be able to take it as well. Everyone takes a beating sometime. The problem is with tabloid journalists, like Rebekah Brooks, and the editors at the Mirror, is they've dished it out constantly, but they never expected to get it back. But now they're getting it and they don't like it.
Hack: Sex, Drugs and Scandal from Inside the Tabloid Jungle by Graham Johnson is published by Simon and Schuster. You can buy it here.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshuahaddow