After years of sitting silently in the wings while a bloody Jacobean revenge tragedy played out on the stage, you probably wonder why I have finally decided to cast myself in a speaking role and stroll briefly onto the stage that bears the corpse of my former newspaper.
It is after all, much too late to save this vanquished leading lady. For the News of the World, the rest is silence.
But by way of an epilogue, let me explain an alternative script I wrote for this drama myself.
It is a script that never made it to the publisher.
If it had, the media landscape may have been very different to the tortured and pock-marked one we see today.
The Gordon Taylor phone-hacking culprits would have been identified and culled. The Guardian investigators would have rested on their well deserved laurels. No remorseless barrage from Parliament. No renewed police investigation. No torrent of arrests. No cataclysmic revelations.
And for better or for worse – I’ll leave you to decide which – a 168-year-old newspaper and all who worked for it, would have survived. Cleansed and chastened.
It is a scene I will outline to you now.
For most of you, even my former colleagues on the News of the World, it will be the first time you will have heard it.
So after so long avoiding the spotlight, I wander, blinking and as nervous as a first-night ingenue, into the explosion of flashbulbs and the melee of microphones, TV cameras and reporters notebooks.
The ‘For Neville’ email
My part in this public drama began on 8 July, 2009, when the Guardian broke the story that we had settled Gordon Taylor’s privacy action.
The case had been settled on the basis that the “transcript for Neville” email which implied that I had knowledge of phone-hacking.
Suddenly my job was on the line.
On the morning of Saturday, 11 July, the legal manager Tom Crone informed me that editor Colin Myler was going to ask me to resign and that a very generous settlement offer would be on the table if I held out.
‘In about three minutes.”
Suddenly, I was fighting for my professional life. The money meant nothing. My reputation meant everything.
At that one-hour meeting with Tom Crone and Colin Myler, I gave them a substantial amount of evidence which satisfied them that I was not the guilty party.
Many openly speculated how I had managed to keep my job for so long afterwards. That is why.
I followed this up with a lengthy memo on Wednesday 15 July and handed it to Myler and an ashen-faced Crone, who noted testily: ‘So you are putting this in writing!”
On Sunday, 19 July, I tracked down Ross Hall in Peru, the reporter who had made the transcript on the orders of an executive.
I taped the call and it exonerated me and incriminated the culprit.
I hope Ross – an excellent journalist and an equally excellent fellow – will understand my action. It was not to incriminate him. His innocent role in this was already public. My aim was to discover the identity of the executive who had handed him the hacking tapes to transcribe.
This done, I telephoned Crone to let him know the news. His reaction astonished me. It still does. He refused to take the tape.
It remained in my desk draw in my study for nearly two years until the police seized it on Tuesday 5 April, 2011.
Myler and Crone were due to appear before the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee on Tuesday, 21 July, 2009, two days after I tracked down Ross.
‘Magnet for the iron filings of suspicion’
If I were to pinpoint a precise time when the fate of the News of the World was sealed, it would be during these two days.
My evidence was ignored leaving me as a convenient magnet for the iron filings of suspicion.
Was it better to have a suspect in the office rather than another convict?
False allegations against me raged in the press. Parliamentarians bayed for my blood. And the News of the World did nothing to defend me. The pressure on me for two years was colossal.
I added to my dossier providing more memos.
I requested that I be allowed to show my dossier to Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive officer at News International.
I do not wish to embarrass the executive who warned me away from Rebekah’s door, I regard him as nothing more sinister than an amiable buffoon. A Polonius-type figure in this drama. In short, a ‘yes man’.
But I am looking at his email reply now and he is determined to block my route to her.
In the absence of any corporate defence amid the clamour for my blood, the inevitable happened. The police came banging on my door.
Even after my arrest, I added to my dossier proving my innocence with more memos and another tape.
The tape, together with two requests for urgent meetings with senior management, were refused by the same executive.
Senior management at the News of the World missed every opportunity to root out the problem and exonerate me.
Sunderland Echo report was the final straw
The final straw for me came in February this year, when the Sunderland Echo, my home town newspaper, printed allegations that I was involved in ‘endemic phone-hacking’ and was responsible for sending emails to the Max Mosley prostitutes, trying to blackmail them into giving me an interview.
For the first time in 28 years, I failed to turn up for work.
I wrote an email to the editor explaining I was travelling to Sunderland to speak to my family and reassure them and my late father’s friends that this was untrue.
I wrote to Myler that the hacking of Gordon Taylor’s phone and the blackmail letters had long been known to be the work of a certain executive, who I shall not name here for legal reasons.
His reply was extremely revealing. Tellingly, it failed to correct this highly accusatory statement. He passed on his regards to my family and invited me to take off as much time as I needed, with his blessing.
By now, it was far too late for senior management to tell James Murdoch what I had been revealing to them for the past two years.
So when Glenn Mulcaire erroneously named me as a person who had instructed him to hack the voicemail of one particular individual, News International had no dossier which showed where the true blame lay.
Nor were they aware that one of the executives who initiated the hacking was Mulcaire’s very best friend and mentor and he was therefore unlikely to name him.
They fired me on the spot.
News International will hear more of this from me later.
But most significant of all, by depriving James Murdoch of the dossier, he was made to sit in front of the CMS Committee and face the damning allegation that he was guilty of ‘Wilfull blindness”.
Far from being blind, James Murdoch had been given nothing to see.
Naked in the debating chamber, he was forced to endure absurd accusations of upholding the code of ‘omerta’in a mafia-style organisation.
Tom Watson told that James Murdoch had been kept in the dark
A corporate disaster for News International ameliorated only by the fact that a barnstorming Tom Watson had managed by this point, to reach such a crescendo of implausible Victorian melodrama as to make Brian Blessed seem like Clement Freud sucking on a mogadon.
It shouldn’t and needn’t have happened.
I had given a heap of information to Watson showing how Murdoch had been kept in the dark.
He was astonished by it and he was generous and magnanimous enough to offer three sincere apologies for the attacks he had led on me. We parted on friendly terms. But I was under no illusion that we both had different agendas and I told him so.
And so it came to pass. My evidence did not fit the pre-ordained frame of his argument. ‘I’m old Labour so Murdoch is a lying, capitalist bastard. Right, I’ve ticked that box”.
It was an argument that held little weight in Junior Commons Rooms in the 1970s and 80s. Let alone in a Parliamentary select committee.
Where are the towering intellects of an Enoch Powell or a Robin Cook when you need them?
And where was the dossier I had prepared?
Sadly, the answer to both is – dead and buried.
Do I believe James Murdoch when he says he was never informed of the ‘transcript for Neville’ email?
This may seem odd from a man who wants to kick his pants for unfairly dismissing him after 21 years of loyal service. A man who defended him and his father around the dinner tables of London when confronted with ideological baggage carriers like Watson for 21 years. A man who won them a host of awards and was rewarded with the bullet. Without even a hearing.
I feel like booting him into the Thames and firing foam pies at his dad from a very large cannon.
But as you can see, there was a pattern of withholding vital information from James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks.
And the same pattern which led to James Murdoch’s oblivion to phone-hacking also led to my dismissal, the closure of the paper and the loss of nearly 300 jobs.
Whether this was because of the ‘iron filings’strategy, a fear of taking bad news to the boss or the pathological culture of secrecy which had lodged itself in the heart of the News of the World, we may never know.
James Murdoch should have the benefit of the doubt.
‘I stake my liberty on the truth of what I say’
I too must take my fair portion of blame. It is a matter of great personal regret that I failed to walk into Rebekah Brooks’ office. I had discussed doing so with friends and colleagues many times. I was naive to assume she and James Murdoch had been fully appraised.
I had a warm and trusting relationship with Rebekah over many years. I had been her news editor. She would have opened her door to me. I should have grown a spine and gone over my boss’s head.
Any member of this dramatis personae who feels aggreived by my script, I say to them – you watched as I carried your burden for two and a half years. I am merely giving back what belongs to you.
With that explanation and confession, I hope to leave my brief appearance on the stage for the time being.
I have ignored the entreaties of Newsnight, Panorama, the Wall Street Journal and a host of other media outlets too numerous to mention to bring my explanation to you, my fellow journalists, in the Press Gazette
And if you still think me guilty of the Gordon Taylor hacking in any way, shape or form. And if you believe I was fairly dismissed, please consider this. I have chosen not to take the offer of potential immunity from prosecution.
I stake my very liberty on the truth of what I say.
That makes me a fool or an innocent man.
I leave you, my peers and the people who know me best, to decide which that might be.
Exeunt for now.
Tom Crone has not responded to a request for comment from Press Gazette this morning. The central allegation in this piece, that Thurlbeck’s ‘dossier’ was ignored, was first raised by him in TV interviews and in the Evening Standard last Thursday. Crone and Myler have yet to issue any comment on this point. News International has said it cannot comment on ongoing police inquiries.
Tom Watson has put this statement on his blog, which he gave to Reuters on Monday: “It is not possible for me to respond to Mr Thurlbeck’s statement in full as to do so may prejudice the conduct of the police inquiry.However, to be fair to Mr Thurlbeck, it is true to say that he did tell me that he raised his concerns with senior managers in July 2009. I am sorry that I cannot say more at this time. I have made the information he shared with me available to the police.”