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May 18, 2023updated 21 Jul 2023 9:12am

Hacking ‘whistleblower’ Graham Johnson says Mirror hacking was ‘organised crime’

Former Sunday Mirror investigations editor Graham Johnson denied being a liar and said he wanted to help victims.

By PA Media

Phone hacking “whistleblower” Graham Johnson has said he wants to help “victims of the organised crime” at the publisher of the Mirror and denied being a “professional liar”.

Johnson, who previously pleaded guilty to phone hacking, alleged that Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) senior executives and lawyers “had been aware of the widespread organised crime and involved in its subsequent cover-up”.

MGN, which also publishes the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, is contesting claims brought by the Duke of Sussex and other individuals over allegations its journalists were involved in voicemail interception, securing information through deception and hiring private investigators for unlawful activities.

The publisher says board members have denied knowledge of such activities and claims there is “no evidence, or no sufficient evidence, of voicemail interception” in any of the four claims chosen as “representative” cases.

Graham Johnson says he was instructed to hack Denise Welch

Johnson, who was a senior reporter and then investigations editor from 1997 to 2005 at the Sunday Mirror, rejected suggestions that he had confessed to phone hacking as a “self-confessed professional liar bent on self-preservation”.

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Under questioning from MGN’s lawyer at the trial at London’s High Court on Wednesday, Andrew Green KC, over his objectivity in the trial, Johnson said: “I think it is wrong for organised crime to take place at your newspaper and other newspapers and I write stories about it and I’m very happy to help victims of the organised crime at the Mirror group.”

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In a written statement, the journalist claimed he was instructed in 2001 by then deputy editor Mark Thomas, with the knowledge of then editor Tina Weaver, to “intercept the voicemails” of actress Denise Welch “because of a tip that she was in a relationship with an alleged underworld figure”.

He said he was “very uncomfortable doing it”, claiming that Thomas “castigated me for not hacking frequently enough”.

Johnson said he was told Thomas organised for Welch’s hotel room to be bugged by photographers, adding: “I knew that bugging a hotel room was illegal and I walked off the job.”

He later came forward to the police, admitted that he “only ever hacked phones on a few days in 2001”, and ultimately received a suspended prison sentence for phone hacking in December 2014.

Johnson claimed to be “the only journalist who was involved in this activity to have ever come forward voluntarily and make admissions”.

Elsewhere in his statement, Johnson said he was aware of “a very large number of private investigators (PIs) used by media organisations who used unlawful means to obtain information, for example by blagging, phone hacking, phone tapping, email hacking or intrusive surveillance etc” and claimed MGN used PIs.

He claimed to have evidence “relating to over 150 PIs including those active in the mid and late 1990s”.

At an AGM in 2015, he questioned David Grigson, then chairman of Trinity Mirror – as MGN was formerly known – over phone hacking as he felt senior executives “were not being held to account for their actions” over an alleged “cover-up”.

Johnson’s statement included a series of examples of alleged work done by PIs, while he also claimed he was told of a “well organised phone hacking conspiracy” at the Sunday Mirror which saw the footballers Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand targeted.

The journalist said he was involved in “pulling phone bills and commissioning blags on footballers and buying sensitive police intelligence reports on targets such as Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney”.

Under cross-examination from Green, it was put to Johnson that he “acted dishonestly” and engaged in “illegal activity” while working at the now defunct News of the World (NoW) newspaper between 1995 and 1997 – with the court played a BBC interview in which he confessed he had “fabricated stories”.

Asked if he had learnt to be a “convincing faker”, Johnson said he used his “skills” while at the NoW, but added: “I don’t use them in the witness box under oath in the High Court.”

He denied being motivated by a hope of limiting the impact of police action when confessing to phone hacking at MGN, saying he did not do this earlier as there was no investigation into the Sunday Mirror until 2013.

Johnson said he “did not lie” to police and rejected a judge’s previous finding in separate litigation that he was among a group of “prolific hackers”.

Johnson accused of ‘letting the court be your newspaper’

Update on Thursday 18 May: Continuing to give evidence at the High Court, Johnson doubled down on his claims of “organised crime” at the Mirror group.

Explaining that as a journalist he had investigated drug gangs in Liverpool and other criminal activity, he said: “The Mirror is no different to an organised crime group in that respect.

“This is a true crime story which is constantly evolving. By any definition it can be defined as an organised crime group because it was involved in systemic crime over many years, involving hundreds of people, involving a hierarchy of people.”

Johnson added that the alleged activity involved “millions and millions of pounds” spent on private investigators.

Green, cross-examining the journalist for a second day, suggested to Johnson that he was “just letting the court be your newspaper”.

Johnson, who claims to have exposed “a large variety of methods of unlawful information gathering” through his investigations into newspapers’ practices, said he approached the BBC, ITV and newspapers about “this organised crime story” but they did not want to write about it or make documentaries about it.

The journalist has alleged that MGN senior executives and lawyers “had been aware of the widespread organised crime and involved in its subsequent cover-up”.

But in cross-examination Green has challenged his evidence, suggesting he was “making up” parts or had “utterly, utterly embellished” his accounts.

Johnson faced more questions over his claims, which included that the hacked emails of Hugh Grant were used for stories in the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror about the actor and Eimear Montgomerie, the ex-wife of golfer Colin Montgomerie.

The court heard how Johnson relied on confidential sources for information about the alleged work of private investigators on such stories.

Johnson said: “One of the reasons sources will not come forward and be identified is because they will be punished for it. They are relentlessly attacked in the newspapers – they are blacklisted.”

He said people could lose work, face threats at their homes, experience abuse online or be sued.

“They are absolutely terrified of giving their names to you and your client,” he told Green.

Johnson has claimed to have experienced “abuse” and “threats” from journalist Christine Hart – who has denied his claims that she spied on celebrities at The Priory rehab clinic – and alleged that private investigator Gavin Burrows had written “abusive” tweets about him.

“It was difficult,” he said, adding: “It’s not unusual on this story, these were the type of people which were employed by the newspapers to do their dirty work.

“If you do ask them questions, they turn nasty. The Mirror Group encouraged these people to behave like this because they behave in a similar way with these smears that they make.”

‘Totally inappropriate’ links between PIs and newspapers

Earlier on Wednesday, the court heard from Derek Haslam, a retired undercover police officer, who infiltrated alleged PI Jonathan Rees’ firm Southern Investigations between 1997 and 2006 in connection with the unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan – Rees’ former business partner.

In a written statement, Haslam said Rees and his new partner Sid Fillery admitted they frequently worked for MGN newspapers by “selling tips and story leads to them but also selling to MGN journalists their regular PI services such hacking and blagging”.

He said Southern Investigations had “totally inappropriate” connections with newspapers and claimed Rees and Fillery were “deeply involved in the business of corrupting serving police officers and acting as a conduit between corrupt police officers and organised criminals”.

Haslam told the hearing that Rees would “openly brag about what they were doing” and that he had a “thirst for information”.

The former police officer said he was “amazed” by “how naive Scotland Yard was [about] how this information gathering was going on”.

In his statement, he claimed Rees said he had sold information to the Mirror for a story about Prince Michael of Kent allegedly being in debt to the bank.

“He was always very proud about this kind of thing and loved to boast about it,” Haslam said.

Coronation Street actors Michael Turner and Nikki Sanderson and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman are also named as “representative” cases for the seven-week trial.

The hearing before Mr Justice Fancourt continues.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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