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Monday, April 23, 2012

May God Forgive Them

Those of you who are unwise enough to follow me on Twitter know how interested I am in the Leveson Inquiry, the judicial investigation into the behaviour of the British press which was set up in the light of the phone hacking scandal. I was a former reporter and I witnessed and experienced and sometimes performed all manner of illegal activities. I was asked and submitted a statement to the first module of the inquiry just before Christmas, which was quite late on. Due to the fact that it refers to events that happened some time ago, it was not submitted as evidence. But I have the inquiry's agreement to publish it myself. I've edited out some names, but the facts are all true. 

My name is Dan Waddell and I’m an author and journalist. I graduated from university in 1994 and then spent 1995 taking a year long NCTJ course to fulfil my ambition of becoming a reporter.

In the summer of 1995 I spent a week’s work experience at the Press Agency (Yorkshire), a respected and established news agency based in York. As a result of that week I was offered a job as a reporter starting in January 1996.

Nothing in my training prepared me for life as an agency reporter. The NCTJ course was barely adequate for a career in local newspapers, never mind the unique challenges of working for an agency. Within weeks I was ‘doorstepping,’ doing ‘death knocks’ (knocking on the door of the recently bereaved), bidding for stories on behalf of the News of the World, secretly recording conversations and all manner of activities, which were never even mentioned in my training course.

Yet I was very happy in the job. I was young and ambitious and avoiding the daily drudgery, as I saw it then, of local journalism and working directly for the national newspapers was thrilling. It felt like a game. In fact, I heard many reporters, young and old, refer to it as ‘a game.’ As an agency, we weren’t tied to any readers, or any civic duty – our sole aim was to generate and sell stories from the local area.

The agency’s work was split between generating stories and doing ‘legwork’ on behalf of the national press. Many of the stories we generated came from the courts, or contacts, or from the local press. In order to attract the attention of the nationals we would often, as a colleague put it, give the stories a ‘sprinkle of stardust.’

I came to refer to a ‘truth spectrum’ on which we could place our stories. It would have been disastrous business to sell stories that were found to be untrue, but often the true story did not make for a marketable one. The trick came in finding a way to cleave to the truth but still offer enough of a ‘line’ to catch the eye of busy news editors in London and the northern correspondents.

I would estimate most of our stories lay around 60 or 70% on the truth spectrum, some more and some less, after being given the required ‘topspin’. The trouble was that often these stories were rewritten and subbed, given their own ‘topspin’ according to the agenda of the newspaper, so that when they appeared in the newspapers they were often rather less accurate. Despite this there were surprisingly few complaints. I put this down to my boss’s natural caution – he had founded the agency in the 1960s and was still rooted to that age and a way of doing things that had long since disappeared. Other agencies, I subsequently discovered, took far more liberties than we did.

While I was having the time of my life, a few incidents occurred which caused me disquiet. One involved a university PHD student who delivered a paper at a conference in York discussing the age of sexual consent in light of recent custodial sentences handed down to children, such as the Bulger killers. He was ‘monstered’ by The Daily Mail, accused of arguing the case for paedophilia, despite doing no such thing, and I was tasked with tracking him down because The Sun wanted to call him the ‘Sickest Man in Britain.’ He locked himself in a classroom, in tears, for hours and we couldn’t get a picture so the story was shelved.

I was also asked to write a story for That’s Life magazine, a weekly, about a wheelchair-bound woman who had met her third husband, also in a wheelchair, in hospital. These weekly magazines are very lucrative payers for agencies, and pay considerable amounts to the subjects. I did the interview and filed the copy, under the headline ‘A Wheelchair Romance,’ as requested in my brief. It appeared, without any further input from me, or from the story’s subject, under the headline ‘I’m a Wheelchair Sex Maniac’ with all manner of fabricated quotes. The subject was understandably furious and rang me to complain. When I  apologised and explained to her that I wasn’t responsible for the changes, she rang the magazine and was told that she had been paid, the story had been written and she should shut up. I think the culture of magazines like this, and they still proliferate, and I doubt they abide by any code, should be examined because this example was by no means isolated.

Much of the other work we did, as mentioned, was legwork for the nationals: doorstepping, obtaining pictures, meeting subjects to see if the information they were offering was worth the newspaper’s time and resources, gathering background for stories, occasionally bidding for stories on their behalf (though we were told never to name a figure, although it was well-known that certain newspapers never paid the money they promised they would in return for stories.)

It was one such job that started my disillusionment with the newspaper industry. The News of the World had been tipped off that a monk at a Catholic school in the north was gay and soliciting sex in public toilets in London. Their informant was the man with whom the monk had sex. He was a regular NOTW informant. He basically hung around public toilets having sex with men and if any of them are remotely newsworthy he would inform the NOTW.

The newspaper, excited by his link to such a prestigious school, wired up their informant and sent him back to meet the monk, with explicit instructions to get the monk to admit to being sexually attracted to the boys in his care. They had tea at the Dorchester, where the informant asked him about his feelings towards the children.

The story was nearly spiked when my boss informed the NOTW that the monk was a member of the monastic community and not on the school teaching staff. However, he was in charge of the choir. The newspaper deemed this to be strong enough justification to print the story about his homosexuality and we were asked to gather background and some pictures.

On Friday March 1st the NOTW sent a reporter to put the allegations to the monk. She visited our office before heading on to the school. There she told him about the planned story and, after stressing he had done nothing wrong, asked him if he wished to respond. He said nothing, but accepted her business card. He was later found in the surrounding woods. He had committed suicide. On the back of her business card, he had written: ‘I never did anything wrong as they accused me. May God forgive them and have mercy on my soul.’

The story was pulled from the NOTW. My boss sold the story of the suicide to the Mail on Sunday. No mention was made of the tabloid sting in the report.

A few months later there was an inquest. All of the newspapers sent reporters. The coroner, Michael Oakley, was damning in his criticism. He described the NOTW’s behaviour as ‘underhand and despicable.’ He lambasted the way the NOTW obtained the story. Then he went on to deplore the standards of a minority of the press and ‘their aim to titillate their readers and increase their circulation.’

He concluded: ‘I trust that in future careful consideration is given to the manner in which such investigations are carried out, bearing in mind the fatal and tragic consequences that can be seen to have resulted in this particular case.’

I had seen the agitation, even excitement among the reporters present. Back at the office the phones were red hot. I was convinced there would be consequences. Part of me thought this story was so awful, so unforgivable, that the general public would be so repulsed that the NOTW would suffer a major decline in its readership.

The next day the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian were the only ones to report the coroner’s words. Even then it was only a few paragraphs. The rest ignored it completely, even though I knew they were aware of it. ‘Dog doesn’t bite dog,’ as my boss said.

I have copies of the original copy that was filed immediately following the inquest.

I feel this story illustrates much of what was wrong with the British press in the late 1980 and 1990s, and which directly led to the wrongdoings and criminality we see exposed today. When a newspaper can directly cause the death of an innocent man, and face no punishment, and for their rivals to look away because they knew a same fate could befall any of them, is it any surprise they became corrupted by their power?

It carries all the hallmarks of what tainted the culture of much of our press: power without responsibility; arrogance; a complete and utter disregard for the feelings of the subjects of their stories; a belief they were above the law or any meaningful censure (as shown in this case – the only repercussions were the coroner’s barely reported criticisms); underhand, dishonest methods of gathering stories which replaced more time-served and honest ones; a desire to bend facts to their will; and a belief that what interested their readers was therefore in the public interest.

Despite that, and my growing disillusionment, I still believed that journalism was on the right side of the law – just. Then I was asked to help the Mail on Sunday track down the mother of a teenage suicide victim. She had moved – the man who had abused her son, causing her suicide, had been released from prison and she reasonably wished to live in some privacy. We had been unable to find her. Eventually the photographer ‘put in a call.’ A few minutes later, he had an address. It was the right one.

When we arrived, the woman was visibly shaken. She told us she’d had a phone call from her doctors. Someone purporting to be a pharmacist was asking for her address. They gave it out, but had become suspicious after the call, so they called to warn her. She hadn’t yet put two and two together. As we left, the photographer made a note to remind his contact – a Private Investigator – to be more careful. It was the first time I’d heard of PIs being involved in news gathering. It wasn’t the last.

In May 1997 my boss died. A few months later the agency folded. Later that year I moved to London where I worked as a casual reporter on many national newspapers. It did nothing to curtail my growing dislike at the methods and culture of the press. 

I spent a few weeks on a Sunday tabloid in 1998. During that time I was sent to meet a contact in Essex regarding a possible story. The contact was a private investigator. I saw first hand what a PI could offer. He picked me up from the station, fed me sausage sandwiches, gave me use of his car, introduced me to his wife and children, as if I was being inculcated into some secret society. Then I was regaled with a sliding scale of illegal information he could offer a young hack like me: ex-directory numbers, medical records, police records, mobile phone records, credit card records. He also told me the names of all the journalists, many of them known to me, from newspapers across Fleet Street, who were regular clients of his.

I wrote about these experiences, and the secret use of PIs, in an article published in Press Gazette, the industry magazine, in 2002. 

I drifted away from news journalism in 1999. I always dreamed of being a journalist. I knew it was no place for shrinking violets. I enjoyed the rough and tumble. Part of me still misses it. But I didn’t imagine it was rife with illegality, macho posturing, a trade where being an ‘operator’, a smooth-talking conman in non-journalese, was more valued than being dogged, persistent and interested in originating genuinely good stories that satisfied the public interest, rather than peddling tittle-tattle and slaving away in miserable newsrooms, ruining the lives of the public, sometimes, as in the case of the monk, with fatal consequences.

I saw an industry where national newspaper editors wielded enormous power and their staff abused it daily on their behalf. No one called them to account and they were allowed to get away with the most appalling abuses. Stories were spun and even concocted to fit a certain agenda. People or groups or lifestyles who did not fit into this worldview were dismissed and stories ‘bent’ to smear them. Any complaint was given short shrift. I was never told of the PCC code, no newsroom ever displayed it, and quite frankly, the idea there was a rigid code, beyond ‘Don’t make it up completely’ is laughable.

Given this ‘freedom’, and knowing there would be little censure as long as the story was more or less true, news editors and reporters, under enormous pressure to deliver these stories, were able to get away with all manner of underhand methods. After all, in the case of phone hacking, or using a PI, it was an easy and cheap way of generating exclusives and knowing it was true.

I believe the facts in this witness statement are true.

Signed: Dan Waddell

Dated: 29/12/2011


  1. I found this very interesting and could relate to much of what you were saying here. I too walked away from journalism for many of the same reasons. It was the right decision! http://howtostaymarriedwhilstwritinganovel.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/the-difficult-and-dangerous-life-of-a-tabloid-journalist/

  2. A really good read, and sadly, confirms much of my worries. I gave up taking a paper after The Times put Rebekah's arrest on something like page 23. Who watches the watchers? Clearly, self regulation does not work, and never will. I enjoy your tweets and retweets, and Twitter is now my primary source for news.