A Glimpse Inside the Sun Newsroom
The trials of Sun journalists have opened up a closed world: the paper's newsroom.
I wrote this for openDemocracy:
By Martin Hickman
Fleet Street is a closed world. National newspapers shape debate, make or break careers and change the course of corporations and governments, but their newsrooms remain off limits to outsiders. The news is public; how it is made is private.
The secrecy is understandable. Dodgy newsgathering has taken place at some papers and journalists weigh trauma matter-of-factly, sometimes brutally. Managements don’t want documentary crews to catch wrongdoing or unguarded comments. Newspaper staffers are reluctant to dish the dirt on their doorstep. It’s an insecure industry and editors have long memories.
So outsiders wanting to know what goes on inside newsrooms have to rely on sporadic leaks to Private Eye and the occasional tell-all book. Graham Johnson’s Hack, for instance, lit the paranoid interior of the News of the World. Until recently, though, if you wanted an in-depth account of the Sun you had to travel back to the 1990 classic Stick It Up Your Punter: a romp through the inspired, warped reign of Kelvin MacKenzie, who “didn’t bother” checking stories. Dramatically, the courts have flung open another window.
The trials of Sun journalists for paying public officials have painted a picture of life at Britain’s best-selling newspaper between 2002 and 2011, mostly under Rebekah Brooks, editor from 2003 to 2009. (Brooks is once again chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group, which owns The Times and Sunday Times as well as the Sun.)
The evidence was substantial: dozens upon dozens of emails, payment records, phone records, and the testimonies of some of the paper’s top staff – two news editors, a deputy editor, managing editor, picture editor and several reporters. The resulting snapshot – admittedly blurred at times, sometimes unsubstantiated but largely consistent – depicts a bullying, harsh news floor where journalists were too afraid to challenge stories or the culture. An arena of ferocious bollockings. Of fiddled expenses. Of MPs’ secrets stashed in a safe, and brown envelope-style handouts to police officers. A rough place where cash was king, the pace frenetic and the pressure relentless.
Safe at the Sun: MPs' and royals’ secrets
Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids have long been suspected of caching embarrassing stories about public figures. Ben O'Driscoll, former deputy news editor, confirmed in November 2014 the Sun had a 7ft “Wild West”-style safe stuffed with more than 30 years of unpublished stories.
O’Driscoll, who joined the Sun as assistant editor in 2004 and left to join the Daily Mail in 2011, told Kingston Crown Court:
"At the time I was there, there was an enormous safe, about 7ft high, like something out of a Wild West film, with big metal handles. It was full of 30 years of stories that are confidential and did not pass the public interest test. It would be photographs, videos, reports, it would involve MPs, celebrities… there are royals in there. If you were to publish everything in that safe I think the Sun’s circulation would go up.”
Paying big cash for stories
The Sun barked: “We pay cash for stories” and its newsroom was rolling in cash. In 2004 alone, the paper paid out £362,000-£424,000 in cash. In his office at Fortress Wapping, managing editor Graham Dudman would keep £25,000 in notes and count out the notes for assistants to hand to reporters. Asked how much of the £300,000-a-year plus went to public officials, Dudman replied: “I just don’t know, I’m afraid.”
Big money was handed over for kiss and tells by models and singers. Rebekah Brooks personally negotiated a £250,000 deal with the model Katie Jordan. If a newsworthy individual was good-looking a story’s worth increased.
In 2010, when reporter Virginia Wheeler learned (allegedly by paying a police officer) that the sister of singer Mika had been impaled on railings in London, O’Driscoll congratulated her: "She's really pretty too. Great tale." O’Driscoll said he didn’t know it was from a police source and was “hugely embarrassed” by his language.
Chris Pharo, the Sun’s head of news told his trial that he suspected many reporters were pocketing cash for sources and were angry when challenged. One had thrown a swivel chair at him. Saying the editor approved cash payments, Pharo told the Old Bailey: “It wasn’t my job to police the Sun newsroom.”
Brooks told her jury that she had not scrutinised cash requests from the chief reporter because: “I’m not policing him.”
What the cash bought
Police officers were paid up to £2,000 a time for stories about investigations into serious crimes and celebrities. Prison officers were paid for tidbits about the cushy life of notorious inmates, such as the child murderer Jon Venables having a 36-inch TV.
Some of the information was undoubtedly confidential. One Surrey police officer sold reporter Jamie Pyatt three witness statements from a rape inquiry. A Broadmoor orderly, Robert Neave, sold the medical records of the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. A senior press officer in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Jonathan Hall (paid a total of £17,000) sold details of the next day’s budget to Whitehall correspondent Clodagh Hartley. A medium-ranking Ministry of Defence official, Bettina Jordan Barber, received £100,000 between 2004 and 2011 for stories about kit failures, the identity of soldiers killed in action and sexual misconduct cases. (The stories lowered morale but didn’t endanger national security). A Sandhurst instructor, Sergeant John Hardy, sold information on Princes William and Harry to royal editor Duncan Larcombe.
Hardy and all Sun journalists bar crime reporter Anthony France were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing over payments to officials. However, a dozen of the Sun’s sources have been jailed. Asked about the impact of the 2010 Bribery Act, a reporter explained payments could no longer be made to public officials, saying: “Life was going to be very different working for the Sun."
What the cash didn’t buy
While it filled the paper with a mixture of public interest stories and the shenanigans of A and B-list celebrities, the Sun rejected some agenda-setting hard news stories. Brooks herself personally passed up the opportunity of buying the MPs' expenses story – which the Daily Telegraph turned into an award-winning series that jailed politicians. Brooks regretted the decision, saying: "I should have gone ahead.” Pharo said that when he suggested buying the MPs’ expenses disc for £60,000 Brooks told him: “Darling, I've just spent quarter of a million on Jordan's autobiography.”
Jamie Pyatt testified he could have exposed Jimmy Savile as a child molester but the Sun rejected the story. After a “police contact” alerted Pyatt to Savile being interviewed over allegations about Duncroft School, Pyatt persuaded "four or five" of his victims to go on the record, but a Sun executive – Pyatt thought Victoria Newton – insisted on Surrey Police confirming the story because Savile was “very litigious.” The police refused to do so and the Sun sat on the exclusive. Savile died a hero two years later.
Graham Dudman, the Sun’s managing editor whose jobs included signing off expenses, admitted that he had fiddled his own claims. He admitted that although he had claimed expenses for meeting police and other contacts at four meals in autumn 2002 he was actually buying takeaway meals for his family, at the Imperial Peking in Brentwood and the Shenfield Tandoori in Essex. Asked whether it was unusual to make false claims, Mr Dudman said: “No, it was a completely common practice… I had done it for years; many reporters did the same. And when I became managing editor and saw expenses it was abundantly clear to me that this was a practice across the Sun.”
Explaining that he didn’t believe the claims he received for "my top royal copper" or "my eyes and ears at Sandhurst", news editor Pharo remarked: "There's more fantasy in journalists' expenses than The Lord of the Rings."
A hard, sometimes bizarre life
Above the Sun’s newsroom hung a sign aping the Marlboro cowboy advert: “Walk tall. You are entering Sun country.” It wasn’t a place for the faint-hearted.
Chris Pharo told the court he got to work at 7am and left at 7pm. All the while people shouted, he had to deal with scores of emails and phone calls a day and keep track of hundreds of stories. A predecessor, Jamie Pyatt, had “burnt out” as Kelvin MacKenzie’s news editor. Pyatt told police he was so exhausted he would sometimes sleep at a motorway service station. Determined not be sent back to the office, Pyatt became a one-man story machine, doling out cash to contacts such as Surrey detective Simon Quinn in pubs.
One email from Pyatt to Pharo, sent at 9.41am, 10th June 2009, captured the extraordinary variety of a Sun reporter’s working life:
"Off at noon to see my Surrey contact [Quinn] to sort him 1500 for the exclusive splash on Dane Bowers being nicked for drink driving after spending night with Jordan infuriating Peter Andre for being with her ex lover. He is grumbling as thinks it was worth more. He has helped me out with all background on the farmer who gassed himself and 10 firemen by swallowing rat poison in front of them and has been feeding me lines of inquiry on the Wheeley Bin murder in Cobham.”
At her trial Whitehall editor Clodagh Hartley claimed she was "frightened" of the Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn. When asked by her barrister about her "highly pressurised" working environment, she told the Old Bailey: "Pretty much after I started, he was bullying."
When Chris Pharo turned down a chance to be the Sun’s New York correspondent, because his partner had fallen pregnant, he received a phone call from the Sun’s deputy editor, Neil Wallis, who was “incandescent with rage.” Pharo recalled:
"He said I was a fucking idiot, that I had fucked my life up. It was a job for a single man. He was furious because he had put my name forward for the job and basically I had embarrassed him.”
The matter did not end there, according to Pharo. He told the court:
"A few days after the conversation I heard Kirsty scream from the kitchen and the subject that week of ‘Dear Deirdre's Casebook’ was a young executive had ruined his life by turning down a job in New York because his conniving girlfriend had got herself deliberately pregnant. I later discovered Neil had torn out the one planned and got an emergency one shot in order to humiliate me over the whole decision."
Pharo said Brooks could “occasionally” be fine – but more often than not “she was nothing short of a nightmare.” He would receive up to 20 abusive emails a day from her, from 7.30am when the papers were delivered to her home. "Occasionally you had an explosion in conference and she could sulk for days over a missed story."
One day Pharo presented a "terrible” newslist to the paper’s morning conference.
According to Pharo: "She got all of the pieces of paper, screwed them into a ball and threw them at my face,” then shouted: “If you can't put together a fucking news list in the next hour you can fuck off.”
Brooks stormed out of the glass-walled conference room, slamming the door so hard that the handle broke, locking the paper’s executives stranded in the room. They had to be let out by a secretary.
According to Pharo, Brooks later emailed all staff asking: "Have any of you got a story because my idiot news editor can't find any."
On another occasion, when the News of the World had a scoop about David Blunkett, Brooks texted Pharo and picture editor John Edwards: "If you fucking cunts aren't capable of matching them, I'll sack the lot of you and replace you with them."
According to the court cases, big egos, rough discipline and wads of cash spurred the Sun’s circulation-boosting front pages. Its newsroom was a business success; its journalism less so. It didn’t treat staff well, its ethics were elastic and it missed important stories.
Martin Hickman tweets at @martin_hickman He published a book about the phone hacking trial, Beyond Contempt