Nicholas Jones

Phone hacking and bribery: Justice and journalism both on trial

At the Old Bailey trial which began in late October 2013 into phone hacking and the alleged bribery of public officials there were repeated references to payments which were said to have been made to contacts and sources who supplied information to the Sun and the News of the World. This paper explores the culture of paying cash to get facts to support a reporter's story line - a practice which splits journalistic opinion

Keywords: phone hacking, bribery, journalism on trial, Leveson

Once the prosecution began to present its evidence in the phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey, it became increasingly clear that not only was British justice on trial but also journalism itself. The size and frequency of the cash payments referred to by prosecuting counsel Andrew Edis QC highlighted the kind of financial transactions which have been commonplace for many years in certain sections of the tabloid press. Paying cash for information to get the facts to justify a reporter’s story line remains the norm today among some of Britain’s leading popular newspapers but it is a practice which splits journalistic opinion.

Indeed, there could hardly be a clearer dividing line: some reporters are prepared to pay for information and defend their conduct on the grounds that sometimes this may be the only way to stand up stories which are in the public interest. But on the other hand there are those journalists who say they have never offered money to informants – and never would – and who insist they would always try to rely on journalistic endeavour rather than a cheque book or cash.

Offering payment for exclusive stories continues to be an everyday transaction in some newsrooms. Readers of the Sun are reminded in each edition: ‘We pay for your stories.’ Telephone numbers are listed for calls and texts to the Sun’s London and Manchester newsrooms; the email address is No Sun reader is left in any doubt: ‘We are always after good stories – and we pay big money for them every day. Celebrity, a human interest story, scandal or anything else that you think the good people of Britain would want to read about.’ The same goes for the Daily Mirror: ‘We pay for news and information. Call us free. You can send mobile phone pictures to us.’

Notwithstanding today’s advertisements and the amounts which may or may not be on offer, the level of payments referred to by the prosecution at the Old Bailey trial into phone hacking and the bribing of public officials served as a salutary reminder of the failure of the Leveson Inquiry to probe the custom and practice behind what for most reporters is usually a no-go area; even among colleagues there are few if any journalists who would ever reveal the precise nature of their relationship with their individual sources or contacts.

The failure of Leveson the ‘fact finder’?

If those journalists who insist they have never paid for information are put on the spot, and asked if they really would turn down a story in the public interest, some do hedge their bets; and thanks to the Leveson Inquiry, the Crown Prosecution Service has issued clearer guidance on how prosecutors should deal with cases of law-breaking by journalists that might be outweighed – and thus be justified in the public interest – by the ‘overall criminality’ they reveal.

Even so I consider Lord Justice Leveson and his legal team did not fulfil their remit: they were asked to ‘examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press’. When he gave evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee in October 2013, Leveson insisted the advantage of having a judge-led inquiry like his was his experience as a ‘fact finder’ of past events.[1]

But in the event, during their lengthy evidence-taking sessions, the judge and his legal counsel skirted around one of the great unmentionables of journalism, and what is perhaps one of the most troubling characteristics of British tabloid journalism, the tradition of paying cash for exclusives, especially when those stories are based on illicitly-gathered information. Time and again the judge and the inquiry’s lead counsel Robert Jay QC failed to drill down into the roots of cheque-book journalism and the lengths to which Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers had gone to stand up ‘kiss-and-tells’ and other headline-grabbing ‘exclusives’ since his purchase of the News of the World in 1969.

Why did the red-tops become so dependent on hiring middlemen as sleuths to hunt for sleaze? Were staff cuts to blame? Were journalists finding they had less and less time to do their own investigative work and, as a result, were they being encouraged to buy in stories? Did their editors think the cheque book was the only answer to fierce competition and falling circulations? Readers knew little of the bidding war that drove journalists to take ever greater risks and sadly they were none the wiser after the Leveson Inquiry published its report.

‘We pay big money for big stories’

The 2005 British Press Awards were probably the high-water mark of paid-for journalism. The News of the World was named Newspaper of the Year and also won Scoop of the Year for its 2004 exclusives on the secret affairs of the footballer David Beckham, the ex-England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and the former Home Secretary David Blunkett.

In a rare interview after receiving his awards, the then-editor Andy Coulson claimed the News of the World had broken ‘important stories with far-reaching consequences’. He defended the way his journalists worked: ‘We know the law, we know the Press Complaints Commission, and we work within it.’[2] His chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who broke the Beckham scoop after Rebecca Loos was paid a reported £300,000 for her story, was equally upfront: ‘To be brutally honest, we pay big money for big stories. On every single story we sit down and discuss the privacy issue. But very often ... we have to spend a lot of time beavering away to prove things.’[3]

The 2005 awards led to an outcry within the newspaper industry. ‘Shag of the Year, or touch of the Pulitzers?’ was the provocative headline in the Observer over the weekly media column of Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian.[4] Eleven editors condemned the News of the World’s success as a ‘triumph only for the cheque book’ and they called for a boycott of the press awards. But instead of it being an ethical turning point, journalistic malpractice went on unchecked. Murdoch’s cheque book had reigned supreme for four decades: in 1969 his very first front-page splash in the News of the World was based on the memoirs of Christine Keeler for which he paid £21,000. More than any other proprietor of British newspapers, he had created a market place in private and personal information; he had driven a wedge between his journalists and the thousands who had never paid for a story.

Rupert Murdoch’s great escape

To my great disappointment the ‘fact finder’ Lord Justice Leveson had a blind spot when it came to inquiring into what I consider has been one of the most corrosive influences of recent years. During the two days he gave evidence to the inquiry in April 2012, Murdoch was not challenged over his role in encouraging and in financing the purchase of private information. He admitted failings in his corporate governance of the News of the World; he told the judge that paying police officers for information was ‘wrong’ but at no point was he asked about the culture and ethics of offering cash for stories or challenged as to why his tabloid newspapers had come to rely increasingly on paid-for journalism when it was frowned upon in so much of the quality press.[5]

Subsequently, in a secretly-recorded conversation he had with Sun journalists in March 2013, Murdoch defended custom and practice at News International and claimed that payments to police officers were made by ‘every newspaper’ in Fleet Street. ‘Absolutely it was the culture of Fleet Street ... We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops. That’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely. You didn’t instigate it.’[6] Murdoch’s assertion was challenged by Peter Preston in his Observer column: ‘Was he right to say that editors pay informants on all papers? That was never true on the Guardian and surely is not on many more.’[7]

Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, was equally categorical when interviewing Neil Wallis, a former executive editor at the News of the World who was arrested by the Metropolitan Police during the phone-hacking investigation but who was not charged by the Crown Prosecution Service. Snow insisted there were no circumstances under which he would ever pay for information. ‘I have never paid for stories, I never would.’ But Wallis asked how Snow would respond if an informant asked for £500 to reveal something about a cabinet minister. ‘I would say (to this person) you are a squalid individual, get stuffed. I would find another way of doing it.’[8]

When public interest justifies law breaking

Although I too have never paid for information for my stories – and I am from a family of four generations of journalists who I am sure would all say the same – I do recognise there might be exceptions. For example, I support the Daily Telegraph’s decision in 2009 to pay £110,000 for the stolen computer disk which allowed its journalists to examine one and a half million receipts for MPs’ expenses. Four MPs and two peers ended up in prison on fraud charges and few if any journalists or members of the public would question the Telegraph’s ethics. Both the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service took no action over what so patently was an example of investigative journalism in the public interest.

Similarly, the Crown Prosecution Service took no action after it was revealed a Sky News reporter had hacked into emails between Anne Darwin and her husband John who were both sent to prison for fraud after he faked his death by disappearing in a canoe in 2002 and she claimed £250,000 in insurance and pension payments. Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, also agreed to take no action but said that the conduct of Sky News in hacking the Darwins’ emails had been at the ‘boundaries of what is appropriate’.

To his credit Lord Justice Leveson did urge legal clarification so that journalists would know when they could cross the line; he suggested clearer guidance for prosecutors to indicate where the public interest was served by journalistic investigations that might break the law. New guidelines were issued by Keir Starmer QC, the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, who shortly before stepping down gave a robust defence of journalists who broke the law when pursuing investigations that had a genuine public interest. In an interview with the Guardian in October 2013, he declared it would be ‘very unhealthy’ if journalists felt they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question.

There are lots of examples of journalists who, on the face of it, may have broken the criminal law but have obviously pursued a greater good in doing so. That is why we wanted to issue guidelines, and our approach is very clear: first we look to see if an offence has been committed; well, if not, that’s obviously the end of it. If an offence has been committed, we then say: did the public interest in what the journalist was trying to achieve outweigh the overall criminality, taking into account the nature of the lead, how much information there was, what they were trying to uncover etc?[9]

Clearly news outlets have to think carefully before authorising potential law breaking; journalists and their editors have to be prepared to face the consequences, especially when purchasing illicit data. While the legal boundaries are clearer for journalists as a result of the guidance to prosecutors, the same cannot be said when it comes to the ethical dilemma over whether to pay cash to an informant.

As in the case of the Daily Telegraph and MPs’ expenses, national newspapers do sometimes face difficult decisions when pursuing campaigns which they believe are in the public interest. In 1968, The Sunday Times won compensation for British victims of thalidomide, a drug given to pregnant women for morning sickness. Sir Harold Evans, the then-editor, led the campaign to get financial compensation for children with birth defects. He has since acknowledged that his newspaper did have to pay to get some of the information it needed when conducting its investigation.

‘How much? What’s it worth?’

Leveson refused to volunteer an opinion on the dilemma of whether or not to pay for stories when he was challenged during his evidence to the Select Committee on Media, Culture and Sport. In view of the continuing promotion by the Sun and Daily Mirror of phone numbers and email addresses, the Conservative MP Tracey Crouch asked Leveson what he thought of the tactics of those newspapers which ‘advertise openly to pay for stories’. Did he think there were circumstances where ‘payment for a story is justified?’ Leveson stood by his earlier declaration to the committee that he considered the inquiry’s report his final word on the subject of the culture and ethics of the press: ‘I am not commenting on any current investigations or procedures.’[10]

What is Murdoch’s legacy? He certainly drove up the going-rate for purchasing exclusive stories, and as Leveson observed ‘large parts of the press had been engaged in a widespread trade in private and confidential information’.[11] By encouraging and sustaining a market place for the sale of stories, private and personal data, snatch photographs and the like, Murdoch has, in my view, been poisoning the well of British journalism. Unhappily for my generation of reporters who trained on local evening and weekly newspapers in the heyday of the provincial press, we are hearing from our successors how this insidious culture of paying for information has had a deleterious effect on local newsgathering. There is a widespread notion that even journalists on local newspapers and radio stations have a budget to pay for stories. It is commonplace for local reporters, when seeking information or interviews, to be asked: ‘How much? What’s it worth?’

In my day, supplying information to a local newspaper was never considered a financial transaction. Most of my contacts were only too happy to talk to a local reporter and usually on-the-record. They took pride in being quoted in the local press and were keen to fulfil their role in ensuring the fullest possible reporting of local affairs.


[1] Leveson, Sir Brian: evidence to House of Commons Select Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 10 October 2013. Available online at, accessed on 15 November 2013

[2] Coulson, Andy: interview, London Evening Standard, 3 March 2005

[3] Thurlbeck, Neville: interview, London Evening Standard, 3 March 2005

[4] Preston, Peter: media column, Observer, 20 March 2005. Available online at, accessed on 12 November 2013

[5] Murdoch, Rupert: witness statement and evidence, Leveson Inquiry, 25 April 2012. Available online at, accessed on 15 November 2013

[6] Murdoch, Rupert: news report of secret recording, Channel 4 News, 3 July 2013, transcript at investigative website

[7] Preston, Peter: media column, ‘From risky exposés to setting up a regular: The press can do both’, Observer, 14 July 2013. Available online at, accessed on 15 November 2013

[8] Snow, Jon: discussion, Channel 4 News, 4 July 2013

[9] Starmer, Keir: interview by Zoe Williams, Guardian, 18 October 2013. Available online at, accessed on 12 November 2013

[10] Leveson, Sir Brian: evidence to House of Commons Select Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 10 October 2013. Available online at, accessed on 15 November 2013

[11] Leveson Report, executive summary, page 7. Available online at, accessed on 12 November 2013

Note on the contributor

After starting as an editorial assistant on trade newspapers in 1959, Nicholas Jones signed a four-year indentured apprenticeship with the News, Portsmouth, in 1961. He was awarded the proficiency certificate and diploma of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. In 1966 he was appointed local government correspondent of the Oxford Mail; joined The Times as a parliamentary and political correspondent in 1968; and in 1972 became a news producer at BBC Radio Leicester, the start of a thirty-year career with BBC radio and television.