Thurlbeck: Phone-hacking was rife across Fleet Street

  • Claims ‘every single newspaper’ intercepted calls in 80s and 90s
  • Describes ‘vicious’ culture of bullying on Fleet Street
  • Tabloid newspapers need to change ‘Dickensian’ style
  • Apologises to phone-hack victim Mary-Ellen Field

Former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck has said be believes phone-call interception – or “hacking” – was rife at every national newspaper in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Thurlbeck, who was arrested on suspicion of phone-hacking last year, disputed a suggestion that tabloid practice has been worse in recent years than in the 1980s and 1990s, made during a debate on Leveson and the hacking scandal held at City University this week.

He claimed the use of scanners to listen on private phone-calls – which he described as ‘phone-hacking but by different means’– was carried out on an ‘on an absolutely huge scale”.

He said: ‘It used to be practiced by bored photographers, who were sitting outside people’s houses… they might be waiting for seven or eight hours, they used to have scanners – this was in the days when mobile phones were analogue not digital – and you could listen to people’s telephone calls literally by getting a little scanner, tuning it and hearing what people were saying. And that’s how famously how Squidgygate broke in 92.”

Squidgygate is a reference to the 1992 Sun story, based on a recording of a private phone-call between Princess Diana and a friend in which she spoke intimately about the problems with her marriage.

Thurlbeck said: ‘What I’m naming there is phone-hacking but by different means. It was absolutely wholesale.’He went on to claim that ‘every single newspaper”, including broadsheets, had a photographer that would intercept phone calls.

‘The point I’m making is that these sharp practices have been endemic in the industry for decades,’he said.

Thurlbeck told the audience that his former paper admitted hacking went on and was now ‘paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages and issuing apologies left, right, and centre”.

He added: ‘I don’t think that it was confined just to the News of the World. I’ve heard other journalists speak openly of this over the years.’

He admitted the ethics of the tabloid press had become ‘questionable’in recent years, adding: ‘We liked the tabloid press, we enjoyed it, but had we lost trust with it. It used to be regarded as kind of a gruff watchdog. That watchdog, I think in recent years, has turned rather savage.”

Culture of bullying

Also at the panel was phone-hacking victim Mary-Ellen Field, a former adviser to Elle Macpherson. Thurlbeck said that before the debate he had privately apologised to her on behalf of the NoW – an apology he later repeated in public.

‘There was phone-hacking,’said Thurlbeck. ‘It was a gross invasion of peoples’ privacy, it had the potential to destroy careers, marriages, lives, and we’d lost our way.”

He later described tabloid journalism as ‘Dickensian’and said reform of the industry would come down to a question of style.

‘We are put together by very old-fashioned people, and our product is thrown through a letterbox at seven o’clock in the morning by a fourteen year-old, fifteen year-old, schoolboy,” he said. “It is Dickensian.

‘We need to reform our style, we need to reform our format, we need to regain that bond of trust with our readers again. It’s a big question, it’s a big ask, it’s a big demand.”

He later claimed there was an ‘absolutely vicious’culture of bullying on Fleet Street.

‘If someone wasn’t performing or somebody had gone off the boil – they might have won strings of awards for many years – if suddenly they went off the boil, the pressure would be relentless, there would be public humiliation sometimes, threats that the job would go, the reminder of mortgage and children at private school.

‘I’ve actually heard that said, on more than one occasions, and that leads to problems. It leads to people taking risks because they think, ‘I’ve got two children at private school, I’ve got a big mortgage, and I’m going to get sacked. What’s the worst of two evils? I keep my job, get more stories coming in.'”

Thurlbeck believed this was linked to the fact that since 1986 the NUJ has not been recognised by publisher News International.

‘Since then I would say the climate in the management structure and the type of management culture behaviour on newsroom floors has declined rapidly,’he said.

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