Former Sun journalist Bill Coles: How phone-hacking began and why paying public servants was standard Fleet Street practice - Press Gazette

Former Sun journalist Bill Coles: How phone-hacking began and why paying public servants was standard Fleet Street practice

Bill Coles has been a journalist for 25 years and is a former New York correspondent, political correspondent and royal reporter for The Sun. His book: 'Red Top – being a reporter: ethically, legally and with panache', is published by Paperback Books price £9.99.

For what it’s worth, this is how the phone-hacking scandal first started.

Every Red Top newspaper in Britain occasionally has to use a private investigator. These snoops are not necessarily acting illegally, but they are capable of doing the high-tech sort of stuff that is beyond the ken of a Red Top hack.

At the most basic level, they are able to provide ex-directory numbers.

This is the lifeblood of a Red Top hack. Well over half the UK population is now ex-directory, and one way or another, we hacks have to be able to get in touch with these people.

I don’t know how the private investigators get these numbers, though I suspect it’s probably by blagging, but for this service they will usually charge upwards of £50 a pop.

At The Sun, I had the luck to get in tow with a young man who was so good that he was quickly poached by the news desk. He was universally known as “Secret Steve” and he was a very proficient blagger.

It soon turned out that tracking down ex-directory numbers was the very least of Steve’s talents. I’m not saying The Sun paid for these services. But I do know that Steve and his cohorts could turn their hand to a lot of things.

They could pull phone bills. They could turn number plates into names and addresses. And for a good four-figure fee, they could get their hands on medical and criminal records.

Meanwhile, our sister paper the News of the World also had their own little army of private investigators offering up a similar array of services.

And one day, one of the private investigators happened to offer up a brand new service: hacking into celebrities’ phones. And since the whole business stinks to high hell anyway, it must have seemed like the next natural step.

If you don’t mind getting your stories from stars’ health records, then it’s only a small step to thinking that it’s okay to listen to their voicemails.

But the sort of stories that the phone-hacking was producing were just pathetic. Bits of tittle-tattle about the Royals; smut about Sienna Miller’s on-off relationship with Jude Law. These weren’t stories, they were just meaningless drivel.

I still find it richly ironic that the story that eventually brought about the whole phone-hacking catastrophe was a few pars in the News of the World which said that Prince William had pulled a knee tendon during a “kids’ kickabout” and that “now medics have put him on the sick list”.

Frankly, I’m staggered that the News of the World’s executives managed to keep their secret for so long. Not only was it inevitable that it would all come out, but it was also pretty likely that once it had come out, the malefactors would be going to jail. Ho-hum.

What’s clear though, from the sheer volume of voicemails that were hacked, is that the News of the World was hacking into the phones of absolutely anyone who happened to be in the news. If a person was luxuriating in their 15 minutes of fame, then it was standard procedure to trawl through their phone messages.

Call that journalism?

The thing I really can’t get my head round is how boring it must have been. Day in, day out, listening to all these tens of thousands of droning messages. I can’t even be bothered to listen to the messages that have been left on my own voicemail.

'We paid people for a lot of stories, we could not have cared less who they were'

When I worked on The Sun, we were paying people a lot of money for their stories. We could not have cared less who these people were, we just wanted their stories. It would not have mattered one jot if they’d been judges, prostitutes, schoolboys or Whitehall mandarins. If they were giving us stories, then we wanted to keep them on side, and since there was always plenty of money slopping around in the kitty, then it was no skin off our noses how much we paid them.

I’m afraid that with me… they actually had to add a new piece of legislation to the PCC code of conduct.

Prince William had just started at Eton College, and for two golden years I had some quite excellent contacts at the school. Sun readers love stories about posh schoolboys and their misdemeanours and although we couldn’t print anything about Prince William or Prince Harry, we could most certainly write about the other 1,250-odd scamps in the school.

My contacts were mainly Etonians. They got paid an absolute fortune… in cash. I would meet them at one of the cafes at Waterloo Station and hand over an inch-thick wedge of £20 notes.

I never knew the boys’ names. I didn’t need to. I drilled the boys very hard on how not to get caught. Above all, I reminded them of Eton’s unofficial school motto: “Deny, Deny, Deny”.

Rather surprisingly, not a single one of the boys was ever caught or ever blabbed.

But the PCC soon put the kibosh on the whole thing. Since those halcyon days, the PCC code now specifically rules out paying money to minors.

These days, that would be very dangerous ground.

As would giving cash to civil servants or teachers or policemen.

Though I don’t like the word “bribery”. It has very unpleasant connotations, conjuring up an image of a grubby hack luring a public servant off the straight and narrow by wagging bags-full of money in front of their noses.

That isn’t how it is. These public servants generally leak stories to the press because they’re outraged at something; or they want to get one over their bosses; or they believe that some small matter should be given an airing in public.

Very rarely are they doing it for the money. Though of course the money’s going to be nice, and they’re certainly not going to turn it down.

But money will never have been their prime motivation. The matter of payment was only ever discussed long after the story had appeared in the paper.

For many decades, paying money to public servants was just standard practice, not just on The Sun but throughout Fleet Street.

Though it is The Sun, of course, which is currently getting it in the neck for this practice, but that is a knock-on effect of the phone-hacking fiasco.

So, if we’re not allowed to give public officials money any more, then how on earth can we keep them sweet?

Well… You’d never believe it, but maybe we could just do what we’ve only been being doing for well over the last century: taking them out for fancy meals and charming the pants off them. It’s bound to be a lot more fun than just handing over great wads of money. Instead of giving them the loot, you’ll be drinking it with them. What could be finer?


Since the first syllable of recorded time, stars have had a standard fall back strategy for when the shit hits the fan – they quit the country and lie low.

In some cases, they can hide away for YEARS. Four centuries back, the Earl of Oxford bowed to Elizabeth I and had the humiliation of farting right in front of the Queen. The mortified Earl sent himself into self-imposed exile for seven years. (When he finally arrived back at court, the Queen magnanimously told him: “My Lord I had forgot the fart.”)

These days when a star lands themselves in the mire, they don’t have to stay away quite so long. Normally it’s about two weeks, as they sun themselves on some far-flung island, before returning home when the whole giddy mob of reporters and photographers has moved on to the next story.

An eminently sensible approach to a bad story. Keep your head down. Don’t say anything – because every word that you do say will only fan the flames.

But on the other hand… well it’s the task of a Red Top hack to track these scum-suckers down and give them a good grilling as they sun themselves on the Sandy Lane beach in Barbados.

Now the thing about tracking down these errant celebs is that it’s never been simpler. And yet… it’s a minefield.

Twenty years ago, about the only way you could track down a fugitive was to trawl for clues by knocking on the doors of their neighbours and their friends. 

One of my old colleagues used to have considerable success by snooping through the bins. Sometimes he’d find a catalogue or a confirmation letter. Just a thought.

Fifteen years ago, we came across a technique known as “Triangulation”.

Step One was to get your tame private investigator to pull the fugitive’s phone bill, from which you would quickly learn their ten favourite numbers. Step Two was to then pull the phone bills of these ten favourite numbers, from which you would duly cull any new numbers that had recently been called.

Up might crop a number at, say, the Sandy Lane in Barbados, and from then…turn up to the hotel. Get the pictures in the bag. Proceed to scare the pants off your runaway.

Today, thanks to “Pinging”, it’s never been easier to track down a celebrity.

All you need is a star’s mobile number and you can – if you know the right people – track them down to an actual grid reference on a map.

The problem, of course, is that all this high-tech stuff like “Pinging” and “Triangulation” is highly illegal. In the current political climate, if you were caught commissioning a private investigator to ping a star’s phone, then you’d probably wind up in jail.

So… very, very dangerous waters. Me? I think you’d have to be MAD to start commissioning these private dicks to do your dirty work. Because even YEARS later, it can still come back to haunt you. Those email trails: they never go away.

This does of course mean that the mad-masters will be spitting blood at not being able to track down a rogue star. But who the hell cares about the mad-masters? They’re always going to be ranting about one thing or another to the minions. That is their nature.

But only a clown is pressured into doing something illegal. Besides – a class hack can produce more than enough scoops without having to do anything illegal.

We think. We ponder a problem. We use our brains. What an extraordinarily radical concept.



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