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October 22, 2015updated 24 Nov 2015 8:17pm

Former Sunday Mirror reporter who turned himself in over hacking: ‘Telling the truth gets you into trouble as well’

By William Turvill

Among the many journalists caught up in Metropolitan Police investigations over the last four years, Graham Johnson is in many ways the odd one out.

He was certainly the only charged journalist to have supportive witness statements from campaign group Hacked Off and The Guardian's Nick Davies, who exposed the hacking scandal, read out at their sentencing. The former Sunday Mirror investigations editor was given a two-month suspended sentence at the Old Bailey for phone-hacking.

And unlike the majority of journalists arrested and/or charged in recent years, Johnson was not under suspicion as a result of emails handed over to the police. He instead blames an interest in Stoic philosophy, which means he does not allow himself to lie. Johnson confessed all to the Met without invitation.

Another way in which Johnson is distinct from many of his former tabloid colleagues is that he does not appear to believe journalists – including those arrested under Operation Elveden – have been hard done by: "They were hypocritical, they were full of shit and they got themselves into a lot of trouble."

Saved by Christmas trees

Johnson, who comes from Liverpool, began his journalism career on the Falmouth Packet in Cornwall before moving on to South West News Service and then the News of the World. He worked at the Sunday Mirror between 1997 and 2005, rising to the role of investigations editor.

For the last ten years he has been a freelance, mainly specialising in crime reporting, and currently writes for two national newspapers. Johnson is also working on a series for crowdfunding news website Byline called "Tabloid Terrorism Exposed", which has featured interviews with Greg Miskiw and Glenn Mulcaire.

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Johnson is also involved in documentary journalism, has written several books and says he makes around £100,000 a year.

The father-of-four works in the backroom of an antiques shop – which is run by his wife, a fellow former tabloid journalist – next door to his home in Greenwich.

In addition to journalism he also helps out with the shop and deals with a customer during this interview. Last winter, around the time of his conviction, journalism work dried up for Johnson – but he found a way to make ends meet.

"What saved my bacon was we sold Christmas trees from in here," says Johnson, who has kept his Liverpudlian accent. "We bought 200 Christmas trees from Kent, the best ones you can buy, and we sold them in here. And that kept my mind off it and also made me some money. So I was happy about that."

Johnson came forward to police in March 2013, at the same time some of his Mirror colleagues were arrested, and admitted to a "short and intense" period of hacking. The Old Bailey heard, last December at sentencing, that it lasted three to seven days in 2001 and that Johnson was investigating claims of an affair between a soap star and a gangster.

"When it all kicked off I’d forgotten that I’d done it," says Johnson.

He made his first phone-hacking confession to a mother who asked him about it at the schoolgates after he had "made the decision that if anyone ever asked me about it, I would always tell them the truth".

He then told other journalists when asked. "I remember Panorama called me… and I told them as well," he says. "And I remember another broadcaster called me and I said: 'Yeah, I’d hacked.'

"But they weren’t really interested in the Mirror hacking, because there was no investigation into the Mirror then and it was considered an irrelevance, but I told the truth anyway."

On his confession to the Met, Johnson says: "I thought the right thing to do would be just to be straightforward, phone the police, and say this is what I’ve done: 'I phone-hacked in 2001. If you want to nick me for it, great. I’d prefer if you didn’t, that’s the preferable option.'

"And, anyway, they nicked me. But you’ve got to take the consequences. It’s better to get it dealt with than live in fear."

Stoic philosophy

Did he think it likely the Met would find out and that it might be better to get it over with? "Yeah, that was a part of it. But that wasn’t the main reason for the decision. That was only part of it.

"I was completely rational about it. And the reason was – and this might sound a bit poncey, right? – but… this is a stressful business, being a freelance journalist in crime is fucking stressful. And I got into stoical philosophy to help me cope with the stress and not really worry too much about things.

“And when you get into that you’ve got to tell the truth all the time. Because if you don’t tell the truth, it gets stressful for you.

“And I remember the most stressful part of my life was working at the Sunday Mirror when all you’re doing is lying all day. You’re bullshitting the people you’re turning over. You’re bullshitting your bosses. And you’re bullshitting everyone. And it becomes really stressful and it can’t be restrained.

“So after that I thought, no, I’ll just start telling the truth. But telling the truth gets you into trouble as well, so you’ve got to deal with that.”

Over the past few years, Press Gazette has reported on numerous journalists whose families have been subjected to dawn raids on their homes by the Metropolitan Police. At least 65 journalists have been arrested and/or charged as a result of investigations stemming from the hacking scandal. But Johnson's confession meant he was spared this and was instead taken to a bar by police officers in central London.

“It was all a bit moody when I got there,” he says. "Because I remember then they must have been thinking: He’s a journalist, he’s probably trying to turn us over and get revenge on Operation Weeting – which I wasn’t.

“And then we went to this bar. And it looked a bit moody as if the table next to us was coppers as well – I don’t know whether it was, but that’s what I thought. And I’m quite good at sussing these things out, as you are after many years.

“And they just said: ‘What did you do?’ So I told them, I imagine they were taping it up. And the next process was they came to take a statement at my solicitor’s office. And the next process was lots of toing and froing with my solicitor – you know, whether they’ll charge me or not.

“And then I got a call in August 2014, saying: 'Yeah, they’re going to charge you.' Which was a downer. And then in October of that year… they charged me. And that was a bit of a shock, because I thought it was a small amount of hacking.”

Not anti-tabloid

One of Johnson's books is titled 'Hack: Sex, drugs and scandal from inside the tabloid jungle'. The blurb promises a tale of how, working on the News of the World and Sunday Mirror, he "found himself drawn into a world of sleaze, spin and corruption – where bending the law was justifiable in the hunt for the big-selling story and bending the truth was the norm".

Is he now anti-tabloid? "No. I think tabloid newspapers are great. And I work for tabloid newspapers now. I wouldn’t have a house to live in if I hadn’t worked for tabloid newspapers. And I’m good at writing for tabloid newspapers.

“My big problem is corporate culture and office culture in tabloids. When I was working in tabloids – especially after 2001 – they were driven by bullies. And we’re getting a glimpse of that now – if you believe Chris Pharo’s evidence – but for years that was an omerta. Nobody could speak about this horror which occurred in tabloid newsrooms: really on-top editors who held your fate in their hands.

“They were bullies, either physically and verbally abusive, but also they were corporate bullies because they used this weird form of corporate passive aggressiveness to make you know that if you fuck up, or if you don’t deliver, or if your face doesn’t start to fit, then we’re going to give you a hard time and get you out.

“And that’s what happened to me at the Sunday Mirror. I remember they tried to get me out for four years.”

Johnson says he is also "pissed off" by the fact tabloids are "predominantly run by posh people".

"When I was at the Sunday Mirror from 2001 it was like the Eton Rifles. The editor went to private school, the associate editor, the news editor, the new news editor, and half the newsroom… they all speak to each other in this corporate, middle class language, which they all understand and feel comfortable with. But they haven’t got any stories.

"So what happens is that the readers go: 'You haven’t got any stories.' Your circulation plummets and I remember going into these meetings at Sunday Mirror… and they go: ‘Fucking hell, we’ve lost 10,000 readers this. And the Screws had this, and we had that.’ And you’d go to this conference… and someone would say: ‘How come we don’t have any readers any more?’ And someone would go: ‘It’s because B&Q’s opened over Sunday… people are going shopping instead of buying our papers.’ 

"And you’d think: That isn’t true. The reason is you’ve got no stories. You’re completely out of touch with your readers. Your office… you’ve got a bank on top, a bank below at Canary Wharf. You’re sat in a spring-loaded chair for ten hours a day. And you’ve got no contacts because you’ve turned them all over."

Johnson says a problem for tabloids is a lack of willingness to cover crime. He exempts The Mail on Sunday and Sun, saying: "Most papers ignore crime and don’t take it seriously. Because it’s expensive, it’s messy, it’s a bit of a fucking downer.

"The privately-educated editors think that the peasants want to read about Coronation Street and fucking Eastenders and British Bake Off. I can understand they might want to read a bit about that, but I can’t understand why they might want to read ten pages of that bollocks.

"I know I’m right, because when I go into an estate in Liverpool or South East London to do a crime story, even when I was at the Mirror, and they’d go: 'Where you from?’, and you’d go the Mirror, and they’d say: 'Oh yeah, I used to read that, but there’s nothing in it nowadays.'”

No Elveden sympathy

As a crime reporter, Johnson says he does not get his stories from the police and never has. "There’s different kinds of crime reporting," he says. "There’s police reporting where you go to a copper and he gives you story; there’s crime reporting where you go onto the streets and you talk to criminals and witnesses and you do proper crime reporting; and there’s court reporting."

Johnson says he has never, to his knowledge, paid any police officers or public officials for stories.

And – with the exception of Anthony France, who was convicted – he does not feel sympathy for journalists arrested and/or charged under Operation Elveden, the Met's investigation into payments to public officials.

"And I’ll tell you why: The Sun fucked up because it sucked up to the police. And even policemen have told me this – that it published disproportionate amounts of arse-kissing, suck-holing propaganda, which the police don’t want.

“Police officers, normal police officers, just want the papers to be straight with them. They don’t want all this sucky-up stuff. And they got too close with the police and not only were sucking up to them, but were paying them.”

He says: “Listen, let’s face facts. A lot of those people who got nicked for paying coppers, some of them weren’t the nicest people in the world and have dished it out for years – dished it out to reporters and anyone else who’s prepared to take it. Because that was the culture of it…

“When they got nicked they didn’t like it. They started complaining about it and crying and all this business. When you’re a tabloid journalist you enter an arena… it’s like a gladiatorial arena. You enter an arena and you know the rules. You’re going to bounce round with a disproportionate amount of power and you’re going to ruin people’s lives and you’re going to behave in a very bad way. And you do.

“But when you start being pulled up for it you can’t cry about it, you’ve got to take it. And they didn’t – they started crying about it and getting their mates in The Sun, like Trevor Kavanagh, to write fucking daft pieces in the paper saying how hard a time they’re having.

“In that way, I have no sympathy for them. Because they entered the arena. But they weren’t as tough as they thought they were.”

He adds: “When the door went in they started crying about it and complaining that their wives were getting upset and stuff. Well what do the police do when they nick you? They kick your door in, they rip your door off at five o’clock, they come in, and they go: 'Listen, you get over there, all this is getting turned over.'

“That’s what the police do. Just because you’re a journalist they’re not going to go: ‘Alright, mate? We’re coming round in a couple of hours.’ They don’t work like that.

“They were hypocritical, they were full of shit and they got themselves into a lot of trouble. And the lesson is you don’t rely on police officers to give you stories and certainly you don’t fucking pay them.”

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