The Screws terminally screwed up.

Sunday Times Collumn

Kuttner has questions to answer

In my article The Screws Becomes the News I speculated that phone-hacking was more widely known about than News International were letting on, and that compensation payments to hacked victims were a way of trying to insulate executives above editor level from the burgeoning wave of controversy and official investigation.

Last week, I needn’t tell you, the fan was set to overdrive and the proverbial brown stuff made contact with such force that we could all smell the resulting mess, and The Screws is now no more.

Hacking the phones of victims (and their relatives) of murder, terrorism, military action and illicit payments to police officers, a Royal Protection Officer; the allegations have come so thick and fast that Murdoch has been caught uncharacteristically and spectacularly off-guard. It’s looking like his son can’t cope, his BSkyB ambitions have been put on hold and the share value of News Corp is under attack.

If Rupe thought he could rescue the main body of News International by amputating the sceptic arm that was the News of the World, it seems he’s going to have to lose more, or get a better surgeon involved.

The gangrene may yet spread wider as further allegations come to light, and we haven’t even seen the start of official investigations, reviews and legal proceedings.

What can we expect in the coming days, weeks and months? Well, a mixture the expected, unexpected and probably downright bizarre. Rebecca Brooks is seriously damaged. If Murdoch cuts her free, she’ll not find work easily. Her CV will do her no favours.

More seriously for her, for the former editor Andy Coulson and the managing editor at the height of the hacking years, Stuart Kuttner, there must be a very high risk of criminal implication.

I’ve asked before, and I’ll ask again: How is it possible that executives who were hell bent on keeping the expenses of their freelancers trimmed to the minimum didn’t know they were signing off huge payments for phone hacking and police bribes? It simply isn’t feasible and it wouldn’t be acceptable if investigations didn’t get right to the heart of who knew what and when, and didn’t bring the culprits to justice.

I for one will be watching with great interest as events unfold, but in the meantime and again as I said in my previous NotW article, I do have sympathy for the talented staff who have finally lost their jobs over this.

Leaving the scandals, enquiries and investigations to one side, it’s interesting to consider what this almighty mess actually means for the Political future.

Politicians (with the bruising inflicted by the MPs’ expenses scandal) will be keen to end the influence newspapers have on their views, actions, policies and likely political success. They will be happy to declare themselves free of and uninterested by the influence of the print media.

In parallel, newspaper publishers have witnessed the loosening of their influence from well before this scandal as the internet started to accelerate the decline in circulations and advertising revenues, and it is the internet which is starting to flex its political influence. We see this in David Cameron’s increasing coziness with the likes of Google. He tried to keep print press close by employing Andy Coulson, but that backfired spectacularly.

Will the internet be a better friend to the politician? I’m doubtful, but one thing is clear. Politicians thought the print media were powerful long after it was obvious to everyone else that readerships had declined to a point that only a tiny minority of people actually read newspapers. But at least politicians had a chance of “herding” information and controlling the message to some degree. They could see who was writing about them and they could cozy up to a limited number of political corespondents.

From here on, it’s all going to get a lot more complicated and harder to control. Tighter regulation might reign in Fleet Street, but the digital world is a completely different proposition.

UPDATE: No point updating. By the time I’ve written the update, someone else will have resigned, been arrested, extradited, a business deal will have collapsed, another scandal will have been unearthed and I simply can’t type fast enough to keep this current.

Second update: 02.08.2011 Stuart Kuttner has now been arrested. Finally.

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.