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By Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton
LONDON, July 18 (Reuters) - “It was the kind of place you get out of and you never want to go back again.” That’s how one former reporter describes the News of the World newsroom under editor Rebekah Brooks, the ferociously ambitious titian-haired executive who ran Britain’s top-selling Sunday tabloid from 2000 to 2003.
Journalists who worked there in that period describe an industrialised operation of dubious information-gathering, reporters under intense pressure attempting to land exclusive stories by whatever means necessary, and a culture of fear, cynicism, gallows humour and fierce internal competition.
“We used to talk to career criminals all the time. They were our sources,” says another former reporter from the paper who also worked for Murdoch’s daily tabloid, the Sun. “It was a macho thing: ‘My contact is scummier than your contact.’ It was a case of: ‘Mine’s a murderer!’ On the plus side, we always had a resident pet nutter around in case anything went wrong.”
The 168-year-old paper published for the last time on July 10 after exposure of its widespread use of phone-hacking triggered a scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper group News International, its New York-based parent company News Corp , and Britain’s political classes and police. Brooks, one of two top Murdoch executives who resigned on Friday, was arrested on July 17 on suspicion of intercepting communications and corruption. She has maintained she neither sanctioned nor knew about the phone hacking. The Guardian newspaper reported the paper’s targets went beyond celebrities to include murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the bereaved relatives of dead soldiers. Murdoch has apologised personally to the Dowler family.
Four former employees of Britain’s best-selling Sunday tabloid have told Reuters that Brooks’ denials are simply not credible. They say people on the paper’s newsdesk, the hub that directs news coverage, were regularly grilled about the top stories by Brooks and later by her successor Andy Coulson, who resigned over the phone-hacking scandal in 2007 and went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman.
“They went in and they were cross-examined for two hours every day. And it was all about the genesis of all the stories,” the first ex-reporter, who worked at the paper for seven years, told Reuters.
The News of the World’s reporting methods were first questioned when it published a story about an injury to Prince William’s knee in 2005, prompting fears his aides’ voicemail messages were being intercepted. The royal family complained to police. More than a year later the paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for six months for conspiracy to access phone messages. Coulson, by then the newspaper’s editor, resigned immediately, although like Brooks he has repeatedly denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. Until recently, the paper continued to maintain that the hacking was isolated to Goodman.
Former employees say that’s hard to believe, not only because of the story approval process, but also because budgets were so tightly controlled that payments for such services would not have gone unnoticed. “It’s simply not conceivable that somebody who was editor wouldn’t have known,” says the journalist who spent seven years at the paper, covering general news.
Neither Brooks nor Coulson could be reached for comment, and News International declined comment for this story beyond saying: “There are numerous views from former employees and we are not going to counter each one.”
Reuters is a competitor of Dow Jones Newswires, the financial news agency that News Corp acquired along with the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
When Brooks became editor, at age 31, she had a brief to broaden the paper’s appeal by intensifying the focus on celebrity and showbusiness news and publishing fewer of the harder stories the paper had been known for -- politicians caught taking illegal drugs or footballers caught with their pants down. More and more front pages were taken over by stories about C-list celebrities, such as contestants in the TV reality show “Big Brother”, to the irritation of the old guard.
At the same time, the pressure to get exclusive stories was so intense that dubious practices were barely questioned. “They were ‘dodgy business HQ’. I‘m not sure if people even realised it was illegal. It was a don‘t-get-caught culture,” said the reporter of seven years’ standing. New staff would be given the cold shoulder until they’d proved themselves to be “thoroughly disreputable” so their colleagues could trust them.
“It was no place for anyone to pipe up and say: ‘This doesn’t seem ethical to me.’ That would have made you a laughing stock.”
Journalists didn’t explicitly ask for private investigators to get involved in their work, but help would be provided if a reporter got stuck on a promising story. “How it arrived on your desk was a bit of a mystery. You didn’t know and you didn’t ask,” said the reporter. “Every week, somebody’s mobile phone records, somebody’s landline records, sometimes even somebody’s medical records. It was common enough not to be notable.”
A fifth former News International employee who worked with News Of the World journalists at this time said its reporters were under “unbelievable, phenomenal pressure”, treated harshly by bosses who would shout abuse in their faces and keep a running total of their bylines. Journalists were driven by a terror of failing. If they didn’t regularly get stories, they feared, they would be fired. That meant they competed ruthlessly with each other. Because the News of the World was a Sunday paper, where a hot story on Tuesday could be useless five days later, pressure was much more intense than at the Sun, said the ex-journalist who worked at both titles. “The News of the World was much more secretive than the Sun. At the Sun, you knew what was going on, what people were working on. In the News of the World you never knew what anyone was working on. They’d send you out to a job and wouldn’t tell you what it was for. It’d be: ‘You’re going to meet a man. Don’t ask his name and whatever you do don’t get him excited. Just take his statement and leave,'” he said. “You became a complete survivalist.” Reporters say they lived in constant fear of byline counts which weeded out those who had filed the fewest stories. “They were always seeking to get rid of people because it was a burn-out job. Their ideal situation was you work your nuts off for six months and they let you work there another six months,” said the general news reporter.
“Every minute you spent there you felt that your employer hated you.”
DESTROYING LIVES Charles Begley, an ex-News of the World reporter, has spoken out about the bullying culture. He said he felt close to breaking-point when, three hours after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s twin towers, he was ordered to appear at the paper’s daily conference dressed in a Harry Potter outfit he had been given to help the tabloid capitalise on the craze for the books about the boy wizard.
“At that time, we were working on the assumption that up to 50,000 people had been killed,” he said then, according to tapes published in 2002 by the Daily Telegraph of a conversation between him and assistant news editor Greg Miskiw. “I was required to parade myself around morning conference dressed as Harry Potter.”
It was during this conversation that Miskiw made a comment that was to become notorious in Britain: “That is what we do -- we go out and destroy other people’s lives.” Contacted for this story, Begley said he did not wish to comment further on his experiences but stood by statements he made at