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The real phone-hacking scandal | The Spectator | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


In the summer of 2019, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were visiting their friends Elton John and David Furnish in the south of France when they were introduced to the barrister David Sherborne. This ‘chance’ meeting would be a massive coup for the man known as the ‘barrister to the stars’ (he represented Coleen Rooney in the Wagatha Christie trial and Johnny Depp against Amber Heard, among many others. Many years ago, he also acted for Harry’s mother, Princess Diana). The encounter led to Prince Harry becoming the star witness against three newspaper groups. ‘It was partially down to Elton and David,’ Harry later wrote in Spare. ‘At the end of our recent visit they’d introduced us to a barrister, an acquaintance of theirs, a lovely fellow who knew more about the phone–hacking scandal than anyone I’d ever met.’

The incentive was created for people to threaten to sue, in the belief that the newspapers would just settle

Harry hired Sherborne and joined multiple other claimants against the newspaper groups, and in due course he became the first senior royal to appear in the witness box in more than 130 years, bringing the civil claims against the press back into the spotlight. The trial against the Mirror Group concluded this week, while the Sun’s trial starts early next year and the Mail waits to hear. The judge in the Mirror case, Mr Justice Fancourt, must decide whether Harry and his fellow claimants were the target of ‘unlawful information gathering’ by the newspaper.

Sherborne, who has acted against the newspapers since the Leveson inquiry in 2011, is the public face of the claims in the courtroom, along with Harry. But behind the scenes, helping assemble much of the evidence, is a 55-year-old Liverpudlian former journalist called Graham Johnson.

Johnson, who was convicted for phone-hacking from when he worked at the Sunday Mirror, was behind one of the most outrageous fake stories ever. In 1997, he was dispatched by the News of the World to find the ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’. It was meant to be a joke – the news desk sent him dressed as Sherlock Holmes – but Johnson came back with apparent proof of the beast: pictures of a large animal and claw marks on a tree. Rebekah Brooks, then acting editor, was dubious but as Johnson later wrote: ‘At the end of the conversation I was sure that I had persuaded her that the pics were real… The reason was simple: she wanted the Beast of Bodmin to be true.’ Only after the newspaper planned a TV advertising campaign to promote the ‘scoop’ did it emerge that the grainy photo was of a puma in Dartmoor Zoo. Johnson never worked for the paper again, and went on to write a book about his career as a ‘professional liar’. Now, having reinvented himself as a whistle-blower, he is on Harry’s team tasked with revealing the inside story of tabloid iniquity. The question is whether Johnson has found another willing audience.

Graham Johnson leaving High Court, 6 June 2023 (Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock)

Phone-hacking was a genuine scandal, which led to a huge investigation and to the conviction of Andy Coulson, the No. 10 spin doctor and former News of the World editor. But very few criminal convictions followed Coulson’s and it all seemed to die down.

In fact, the whole business was just getting started. Individual hacking cases continued to be brought: dozens of them, then hundreds. Typically, lawyers would find a celebrity who was the subject of a story that annoyed them and claim it could only have come from hacking, no hard evidence needed. After the News of the World closed, the courts began bunching the cases together rather than dealing with them separately, to manage the costs. The Mirror Group and Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, having no stomach for a legal fight, tended to just pay out, wary of costs and bad publicity. The incentive was created for people to threaten to sue, in the belief that papers would settle.

In the past decade, some 1,800 celebrities and hangers-on have been paid off. Murdoch’s papers have handed out a staggering £1.1 billion over ten years, of which more than £900 million is thought to have gone to the lawyers. The Daily Mirror – which eight years ago published an apology for phone-hacking – has paid out more than £100 million, with a further £50 million set aside to deal with future complaints. ‘It’s like PPI for newspapers,’ says one legal source involved. As a result, the papers have been bled dry. One former Sun newsman says: ‘It’s an open secret both in newspaper and legal circles that the vast bulk of these cases – upwards of 90 per cent of them – have no validity whatsoever.’

If there is no substance to so many of these claims, why then have the papers paid out hundreds of millions? Because they know that in a civil case, the test is whether the judge thinks that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ an allegation is correct. There’s no jury and no need for hard proof. It all comes down to what the judge decides probably happened.

What’s unusual about Harry’s case is that it has actually gone to court. The prince refused to settle, seeing himself as confronting the excesses of the press, though the kind of behaviour he objects to stopped long ago. The three newspaper groups all strongly deny his allegations and those of his fellow claimants.

‘There is a real sense these cases are being used to lay the groundwork, John the Baptist-style, for more press regulation,’ says one former Mirror executive. These cases push phone-hacking back into the public eye just when a Labour government seems to be in prospect. When Keir Starmer ran the Crown Prosecution Service, he agreed to re-examine hacking cases after unprecedented lobbying by Labour MPs. It was, to many, a heroic moment. As PM, he may wish to return to it.

Graham Johnson has had a pivotal role in drumming up many of the hacking cases. He has had more than 100 meetings with lawyers suing the Mirror (where he was also a witness) and is also heavily involved in the cases against the Daily Mail and the Sun. Evan Harris, the former director of the anti-press intrusion movement Hacked Off, who has been assisting Harry’s lawyers for £150 per hour, refers to him as ‘the spider at the centre of the web’.

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Prince Harry, 7 June 2023 (PA Images)

It’s hard to imagine the trial judge will be favourably impressed by Johnson, given his notorious unreliability. Away from newspapers, he turned his hand to broadcasting and in 2008 he worked on a BBC documentary about Liverpool gangsters; The Spectator has seen a letter in which a child later claimed he was paid £50 to wave a gun about for the cameras. Johnson wouldn’t comment on this alleged staging.

His new career is ticking along nicely. He lives in a £1.5 million house in Greenwich with his partner Emma Jones, a former showbiz journalist who sits on the board of Hacked Off. He runs the website Byline Investigates with another convicted phone-hacker, Dan Evans, specialising in claims of newspaper malpractice. Johnson recently said he regards it as a shop window for claimant lawyers.

The most shocking accusation in all three newspaper cases, which best illustrates exactly how Johnson has been gathering ‘evidence’ to expose the newspapers, was heard during a recent hearing against the Daily Mail. It involves Doreen Lawrence, whose 18-year-old son Stephen was killed in a racist attack 30 years ago. The paper declared her son’s killers ‘Murderers’ on its front page and mounted a successful campaign to have two of them retried. But now Baroness Lawrence says the Daily Mail asked private investigators (PIs) to monitor her bank accounts and phone bills.

Why does she believe this? Her lawyers cited as evidence a 21-page confession from Gavin Burrows, a PI whom Johnson had paid £5,000 a month to help him find evidence for claimants against the newspapers. He also gave Burrows, 53, a book deal for his life story with a small publishing company he runs. The document seems to be full of admissions of illegal news-gathering for the Daily Mail, making a mockery of its claim to have never engaged in hacking. It mentions various celebrity targets. Liz Hurley is suing because she says the Burrows document referred to ‘terrible things’ done to her ‘on the instruction of the Mail on Sunday’. When she told Sir Elton John about the allegation Burrows had wiretapped his phone, he sued too.

Gavin Burrows, however, says the document is a forgery and he never worked for the Mail. ‘I never wrote the statement in question,’ he tells me. ‘It’s a complete fabrication.’ He says that the signature on it is clearly not his.

So what’s going on? How could a group of celebrities end up going to court on the strength of a document whose purported author says it is fake? ‘I wouldn’t trust any of the evidence, full stop,’ Burrows says. He claims that several other PIs were approached by Johnson and, like him, were offered cash to assist with the cases. He says: ‘You have to assume that, out of 30 or 40 people that were approached, one of them would have taken a bung.’

There are concerns within one of the law firms involved over this too: a solicitor reportedly excused themselves as a result. ‘They don’t like Johnson’s methods of “evidence gathering”… They could foresee that the people they’re relying on are volatile,’ says a source close to the solicitor. Johnson has strongly denied any wrongdoing or that there is any public interest in reporting these allegations.

The information provided to Doreen Lawrence for her claim didn’t only come from the Burrows document. It was supported by two other PIs: Jonathan Rees and Christine Hart, both of whom were approached by Johnson. They spoke to me about his methods. Their words should be treated with caution. Rees, 68, has a history of being an unreliable witness: he was imprisoned for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. But he tells me that Johnson is ‘certainly capable of getting people to sign statements or agree that they did certain things which were untrue because he tried that with me as well. He [Johnson] said: “We’ll pay you money… I’ll write a statement. All you need to do is sign it and I’ll pay you lots of money.” He said that they had other people in a similar position that they were paying £2,500 a month… I thought he wouldn’t be that stupid, but he wasn’t joking.’ He also alleges Johnson tried to get him to cooperate with the promise of a Netflix documentary about his life, claiming he had ‘contacts’ there.

Rees claims he had been aware that a group of PIs working for the Daily Mail bugged a café where Doreen Lawrence used to go. ‘I do know that electronic devices were put into public places and conversations were monitored,’ he says. It’s an extraordinary accusation, but he won’t name names and has refused to give an official statement to the lawyers. Nevertheless, Baroness Lawrence and her lawyers have apparently considered this was a good enough basis for her claim.

Then there’s Christine Hart, a former reporter-cum-PI who worked all over Fleet Street. A single mother, Hart says she was in ‘dire financial straits’ when, in 2016, Johnson along with Evan Harris offered her £16,000 for the invoices of her work for various newspaper groups. Now 55, Hart says she took £5,000 upfront in return for around 30 documents and that Harris organised a £2,000-a-month riverside home for her and her teenage son. There was the promise of another £11,000 if she handed over further invoices, and she alleges the idea was dangled that Hugh Grant would make a film about her life in return for her cooperation with the litigation action.

Despite all the interest, flattery and money, Hart couldn’t quite work out where the scandal was. She suspected the receipts would be misrepresented as proof of chicanery, and fell out with Johnson and Evans.

Another old-timer who was paid by Graham Johnson is the California-based Daniel Portley-Hanks, a star witness in Harry’s case, who says he bent rules to supply phone numbers, addresses and other information about celebrities including Meghan Markle to British newspapers. His confession was elicited by Johnson, who paid him a visit after he was released from his latest stint in prison. Johnson bought Portley-Hanks’s archive and gave him a book deal for his life story with his publishing company (for which he was paid a ‘couple of thousand dollars’). At the time, Portley-Hanks was broke and had been stripped of his PI licence.

Daniel Portley-Hanks leaving High Court, 18 May 2023 (ZUMA/Alamy)

One US source who knows him says it’s ‘astounding’ he’s being used as a witness. Now aged 77, Portley-Hanks is living on food stamps in LA but was given £3,600 of expenses by Harry’s lawyers for his trip to London and feted like a star. ‘I needed a break and I can’t deny that I had a great time while I was in the UK,’ says Portley-Hanks, who stands by all the evidence he has given. ‘I enjoyed the vacation.’ He posted pictures of him dining with his ‘buddy John’ (Cleese) as well as having dinner with Hugh Grant, both heavily involved with Hacked Off.

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During the recent Mirror trial, Johnson accused senior executives and lawyers at the newspaper group of being ‘aware of the widespread organised crime and involved in its subsequent cover-up’. It is possible he genuinely believes that; he may assume everyone else involved in the newspaper industry operated in the same disgraceful way that he did during his time on Fleet Street. The Mirror, which admitted historical phone-hacking, may well lose on some of the claims, despite Harry’s seeming cluelessness on the stand. But what’s certain is that Graham Johnson’s methods of gathering evidence against the three newspaper groups has been highly questionable. People who are vulnerable and hard-up have been given money, book deals and the promise of fame in exchange for essentially telling him what he wants to hear. Were a tabloid to behave like that today, heads would roll. Even a source associated with Hacked Off acknowledges that ‘Graham has not behaved well’.

This is a pivotal moment for anti-press campaigners. One of them, Dan Evans, argues that the three cases mark the final ‘act’ of the press campaigners. ‘If act one was the crimes,’ he said, ‘and act two was that halfway house for justice that peaked with the Andy Coulson trial, act three will be about finishing the story.’ By that he presumably means state regulation of the media.

Lord Leveson told the BBC in May that recent developments have ‘substantially increased’ the case for state regulation of the press. But all the claims are historic: the dispute is over what tabloids did back in the days when they were selling two or three times what they are now. The law firms which are suing the Sun and Mirror are likely to be making more profit than both papers combined.

Johnson makes no comment on questions about the cheque-writing and offering of book deals to witnesses: he has said The Spectator’s reporting contains many false allegations, but won’t get into specifics. The BBC has said nothing about why they employed the fabulist Johnson to be a ‘consultant’ on a recent hacking documentary: it sent a statement saying it abides by professional guidelines. (Presumably his BBC work was voluntary, as the corporation has a policy of not paying convicted criminals.) Hacked Off denies playing any role in the hacking trial or in the gathering of evidence for claimants, and says that Evan Harris, its former boss, was acting in a personal capacity when he bought up Christine Hart’s receipts. Harris himself offers no comment.

In his memoir about the art of selling lies, Johnson writes about the ‘manufacture of consent’ – if you invent a story and the other person wants to believe it, there’s an unspoken deal. Has this been his approach to gathering hacking ‘evidence’? ‘Leopards don’t change their spots,’ remarks one former colleague. If this new drama does sound the death knell for Britain’s 300-year-old tradition of press freedom – thanks to evidence gathered by a self-confessed ‘professional liar’ – Johnson could once again demonstrate how far you can get by telling people what they want to hear.

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