Former chief reporter of the News of the World Neville Thurlbeck has revealed how he worked as an official informant for both the police and MI5, that a Gordon Brown ally tipped him off about Robin Cook’s secret affair and why reneging on deals helped bring about the downfall of his former paper.
During the hacking scandal Thurlbeck was briefly the most infamous journalist in Britain, as the recipient of the “For Neville” email shown by Guardian reporter Nick Davies to MPs on the culture committee in 2011. This was evidence that the News of the World phone-hacking conspiracy was more widespread than claimed and involved the targeting of Professional Footballers Association chief Gordon Taylor.
Thurlbeck has always denied hacking the voicemails of Gordon Taylor, but admitted other involvement in the conspiracy – serving 37 days in Belmarsh last year (in a cell he shared with his former news editor Greg Miskiw).
Those hoping for further insight into the hacking affair will be disappointed by Thurlbeck’s book which focuses on the rest of his career.
But what a career it was. Thurlbeck (who now runs PR company Clear Vista Media) gives the inside story on scoops ranging from the revelation that Jeffrey Archer had committed perjury to an undercover hit on a devil-worshipping policeman and the expose of David Beckam’s secret affair.
He also details how, long before Operation Elveden, he had 40 police officers investigating allegations he had paid a policeman for information.
Here are a few snapshots of a book which provides a fascinating insight into the story behind some of the biggest news stories of the last 25 years.
…it came on to my radar less than a handful of times in twenty-five years. That it came onto my radar at all is, of course, extremely regrettable and I apologise to anyone affected by it.
On Andy Coulson (who he has known since journalism college in Hastings) in 1986:
Nothing will ever persuade me that Andy Coulson is anything other than a fundamentally good man. And he’s one of the best journalists and finest editors I have ever worked with.
There is a misapprehension among the general public, and even among certain journalists themselves, that it takes aggression to win on a story and it is the noisy, blustering, foot-in-the-door merchant who breaks the scoops. The truth is quite the opposite. It is often quiet, polite persistence that wins the day. ‘Persuading’ people to part with information is far harder than ‘asking for someone’s assistance’. Human beings enjoy giving something to someone by way of help.
And if that happens to be information, so much the better for a journalist. But try to extract that information by hectoring or slyness and you will usually end up with the door in your face.
Exposing then foreign secretary Robin Cook’s affair in 1997:
Robin Cook’s affair with his secretary and mistress Gaynor Regan may never have come to light had he not been exposed so treacherously by one of his own.
In an act of Machiavellian ruthlessness and duplicity, Cook’s private life was torn apart and his wife humiliated by his Labour Party colleagues.
…the tip which exposed Cook came from within the party itself – from one of Gordon Brown’s allies.
Cook immediately ended his marriage after the story went public, following consultation with Number 10 press secretary Alastair Campbell.
The Gordon Brown camp showed their hideous tactics to further their own ambitions; Blair and Campbell their psychopathic disregard for the emotional fallout; Robin Cook the truly unforgivable callousness to his wife at the airport.
Even my own newspaper showed itself to be disingenuous.
High up in the story, in paragraph seven of the three-page story, the following words were inserted: ‘Their relationship had been brought to our attention by two freelance photographers who spotted the pair sharing what appeared to be a domestic life together at his London flat.’
No mention that we had been tipped off by Gordon Brown’s camp. No mention that we had tasked the two photographers to aggressively target the Foreign Secretary. We didn’t want to dirty our hands with that and find ourselves sidelined by a very powerful new Labour government.
Working as an informant for the UK National Criminal Intelligence Service (forerunner of the National Crime Agency) in the late 1990s:
No money would change hands. I would provide them with leads on stories we had deemed beyond our scope or interest involving drug smuggling, gun-running and sex crimes. If I had already infiltrated a criminal organisation and decided to bale out, I would slowly introduce one of their men. In return, they would provide me with back-up assistance.
This largely involved supplying me with criminal record checks on people I was investigating to see if they had ‘form’ for whatever crime I was investigating them for. And they would help me by providing addresses from the registration numbers of vehicles I was following. This in turn would lead to the real identity of a criminal I was pursuing. All very helpful indeed to a tabloid journalist – and an arrangement that will perhaps shock you a little now in this post-Leveson era of non-cooperation between the press and the police.
By 1995, I was an NCIS operative, code-named ‘Agent George’ with the registration number 251. The relationship between the press and the police has never been closer than this.
Working for MI5:
Unlike my work with NCIS, my relationship with the domestic security service was not symbiotic and the information highway was strictly a one-way street. There were numerous conversations about joining their staff, but financial commitments made it impossible to take a drastic salary cut.
Thurlbeck was arrested in 1998 on suspicion of paying NCIS officer DC Dick Farmer for Police National Computer checks.
The arrangement, had it been true, would have been illegal under the 1906 Prevention of Corruption Act and punishable with a lengthy prison sentence for both of us.
Thurlbeck was first questioned following a raid by police on his Surrey home at 7.20am on 20 October 1998. Some 14 months later Thurlbeck and Farmer were charged with corruption and the trial took place 21 months after the initial arrest, in the summer of 2000. The trial was scrapped after Mr Justice Stuart McKinnon ruled that it was a "legitimate and appropriate relationship which can be explained without any suggestion of corruption. A symbiotic one – a two-way relationship with information passed both ways".
In March 2008, Thurlbeck equipped a sex worker with video recording equipment after she tipped him off about a planned orgy involving Max Mosley – the head Formula One's governing body. The story was of interest to the News of the World because the tipster believed the session would have a Nazi theme and Mosley was the son of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
The agreed fee was £25,000 – paid to an intermediary – but later cut in half by the editor Colin Myler, Thurlbeck claims.
Reneging on deals had become one of the hallmarks of the new regime and it had lost us countless contacts. I hated the practice, along with all the staff. But [news editor] Edmondson and Myler pressed their case. He was only going to be a one-off contact, so there would be no long-term relationship to compromise.
It was grossly naïve. And naïveté is a dangerous flaw in journalism. The mistake was to lead to a catastrophic meltdown when Mosley decided to take legal action against us.
Mr Justice Eady ruled against the News of the World awarding Mosley £60,000 damages. He ruled that the orgy scenario, which involved German military uniforms, was not Nazi in theme.
This one article and the aftermath changed the newspaper landscape completely. It may be a cause of rejoicing for many that newspapers shy away from anything that looks like encroaching on someone’s private life. But is has also ensured The Max Mosley affair that those in power are no longer scrutinised with any degree of vigour.