The Screws Becomes the News


Surprise, surprise! It turns out that phone hacking at the News of the World (aka The Screws) might just have been a tad more widespread than was previously admitted.

Now they’re offering compensation and all sorts, presumably because having already had a Royal correspondent jailed and two more senior staff arrested in connection with phone hacking allegations, senior executives may be getting a little edgy at the thought of the police investigation working higher up the chain of command.

Even executives who are no longer in the roles they were in at the height of the phone-hacking period might be getting nervous over this, because it’s a fair bet that one or two, such as former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, would have been signing off expenses for third-party phone hacking services when the practice was rife.

Of course the likes of Kuttner may not have known what they were signing off. Maybe the receipts were put through as general investigative expenses, but it has to be worth asking whether executives above editor level would have been ignorant of the nature of the expenses they were scrutinizing.

At this stage it’s only fair I point out the rather dull axe I have to grind in all this. Between (circa) 1997-8 and 2001 I was a freelance photographer for The Screws, and dedicated about 18 months of that time working 4 days a week exclusively for them.

However by late 2000 I was getting increasingly worn down by the long hours, the pointless errands and being sent to distant places to do silly jobs with no story worth reporting. That year I missed the birth of my son because I was chasing a story in France. It wasn’t the picture desk’s fault that I missed the arrival of my son. I’d opted to stay on in France to see the job through, and my son had arrived unexpectedly early, but when things turned terminally sour between myself and the paper, I was dismayed when I was told I wasn’t “a team player.” That actual phrase was used, and it stuck with me because I’d done more than miss the birth of my only son for that paper.

I’d pulled double shifts when the desk couldn’t get cover, having to spend nights in my car on more than one occasion, without sleep or comfort break waiting for some Z-list celebrity to show up. All for the princely sum of £128 (£145 for a Saturday shift woohoo!). Often the shift fee was equivalent to about £10 per hour. Ok, I’d opted to work for The Screws, but that lesson is well learned now.

On a few occasions I’d turned some insane reporter’s nonsense story into a useable scoop just by being diligent and intelligent. Clearly this also made me “not a team player.”

What finally finished my time with The Screws was when I’d tried repeatedly, and failed, to get paid the expenses I was owed. Mostly mileage.

The thing was, at the time I was working for The Screws, I was living in Portsmouth but having to drive to Wapping most of the 4 days a week. Starting at 6:30am, I’d get to the picture desk for 10, be sent on that day’s wild goose chase (pun intended) and probably get home again some 12 hours later. The reason for the insane commute was that when I started working for them, most stories I covered were in the Hampshire, Wiltshire, West Sussex region. Then they went all celebrity-led and all the “stories” were suddenly in London.

Now management knew where I lived, and it wasn’t as if the mileage rate they paid was generous, even when petrol was somewhat cheaper than it is now. But every month I would submit my invoice, including mileage, and every month a cheque would arrive for the invoice amount, less 8%.

Eventually I gave up asking nicely for what I was owed and threatened legal action. The amount outstanding was in the thousands, and I could no longer afford to work for them. The effect of the letter I sent was instant, and my time at The Screws was over. I was scared and relieved.

And who was it that was taking a scalpel to my invoices? None other than Stuart Kuttner. He must have assumed I was on the fiddle to the tune of precisely 8% every single month, but I never did receive an explanation. I did get my money in the end, but never an explanation.

While I worked at the News of the World, I had the honour and privilege of working with some of the best photographers and reporters in the industry. Unfortunately there were also reporters who clearly had substance and honesty issues. There’s no point me naming the bad apples because this was all a decade ago now, and I can’t even recall their names and nor do I care what happened to them, though I do sympathise with any of the talented people who might still be there.

Addendum: Senior reporter James Weatherup was added to the list of arrested journalists today. As yet, those three most recently arrested have not been charged.

Addendum II, This time it’s personal: Former Managing Editor, Stuart Kuttner, has been arrested, questioned and released on bail regarding allegations of making payments to police for information and on charges of phone hacking.

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  • Ken of London April 13, 2011  

    Tim you could bet your bottom dollar that management knew exactly what was going on but will be in a position to deny any knowledge of the detail.

    As the story unfolds it is becoming quite apparent that they are reaping what they sowed and the net is catching bigger and bigger fish.

    I think we will see the whole house of cards tumble soon and maybe your old mate with it. Someone will throw enough mud and my guess is some of it will stick

    • Glass Eye April 13, 2011  

      Deniability could be one explanation for the sudden apology and compensation fund offer. It’s taken them this long to check all the senior management cupboards for telltale skeletons.

      How much management could say they knew about expenses they were signing off for investigative services; how much detail was on those expenses, is hard to know. On the one hand I can’t imagine a reporter putting a receipt with the words “phone hacking” on. On the other hand, management might have questioned what they were signing off. I suspect we’ll never have the total story, and many who were privy to the practice will get off un-scathed by police prosecutions.

      I do know this, there are some people who will have been delighted at the arrest of Neville Thurlbeck the other week. Personally I always dreaded covering a story that came from him because most of the information seemed to come from people who would normally have been sectioned under the mental health act.

      Let’s see where it all goes 🙂

  • Robert Day April 21, 2011  

    To me, a (nearly) complete outsider (I worked five years in a Government press office, but not one connected with politicians and one that normally expected to get column inches for any press notice in the business pages of the broadsheets, and had little contact with the more popular prints), I smell politics in this entire story.

    Given that some individuals who suspect their phones to have been hacked are Labour politicians, it must be possible that if any dirt sticks to Andy Coulson, some might just rub off – or be assumed to have rubbed off – on David Cameron. If that happens, he’s dead in the water. Murdoch seems to have instructed that the whole Group must come clean and that deputy heads must roll. And he wants to be nowhere close when this story – and the general political situation – blows up in the current Government’s face, as I suspect it will.

    So I think someone’s playing a long game. That the Screws was run in the way you describe makes it all the easier for sacrificial victims to be found. And if they were capable of pratting you about in the way they did, no manager should imagine for one minute that they’ll be immune when it suddenly becomes politic for the senior management to do the same to them. Why should they expect loyalty when they can’t or won’t recognise it in their own subordinates? Right now, I don’t think there’s anyone with a ounce of responsibility for anything that feels safe in Wapping.

    Of course, that’s just the side of the story from Wapping. What went on between Wapping and New Scotland Yard is another matter, and if I were the Chief Commissioner of the Met (or any other force that’s had the Screws pay attention to any story on their manor in the past ten years), I’d be confiscating all the shredders in the Force and making certain that my IT guys had the e-mail server records and (if possible) the backup copies of traffic safely under lock and key. And even then some individuals may have to take one for the team, and that might have to go pretty high up.

    This could be the Operation Countryman de nos jours. It will certainly run and run.

    • Glass Eye April 23, 2011  

      Robert, interesting observations! While dirt might not directly rub off onto Cameron, it would at least seem like a mis-judgement by him to have hired Coulson in the first place. It would be interesting to know more about how Coulson got the job – who knew who and pulled which strings, but at the time the decision to hire him was made it clearly wasn’t on anyone’s mind that phone-tapping would become the story it has.

      Of course Murdoch will be livid that his wider media plans may have been derailed by all this, but thee’s not much more he can do about it except call in favours and offer future directorships or other favours to those with the power to swing the decision. I’m enjoying this conspiracy stuff!

      I suspect the managers are safer than we would like them to be. I was but an insignificant fly on the arse of the elephant that is News International. I’d also marked my card by refusing to sign away copyright in return for the poorly-paid shifts, so I wasn’t going to get much back-up from the picture desk once I took the nuclear option of suggesting legal action might follow further non-payment of the money they owed me. No, I suspect managing editors of the time will be having a slightly uncomfortable time, but they’ll get over it. Massive pensions fully intact. Though I seem to recall Kuttner was something of a spokesman for News of the World at that time, so more public than other managers.

      Who knows the depth of involvement between the Met and The Screws reporters and even management? This could all turn into a right sorry mess for police officers as well as reporters. That may explain the rather cursory investigation the first time around.