It was odd, yesterday evening, to be watching the former News of the World journalist Sean Hoare discussing the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal in the BBC Panorama programme, “Murdoch: Breaking the Spell?,” on the day that he was found dead at his home in Watford. He was 47 years old.
The footage was from a programme first broadcast in March, “Tabloid Hacks Exposed,” and Sean Hoare, the News of the World‘s former showbusiness correspondent, was a hugely important presence in the programme, as it was he who had first spoken out about the “endemic” culture of phone-hacking at the News of the World for a New York Times investigation last September, when he had also stated that Andy Coulson, who, at the time, was David Cameron’s Director of Communications, had been deeply involved in phone-hacking, even though he was on record as claiming that he knew nothing about it.
The New York Times stated that Hoare, “a former reporter and onetime close friend of Coulson’s,” said that he had discussed hacking with Coulson:
The two men first worked together at the Sun, where, Hoare said, he played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson. At News of the World, Hoare said he continued to inform Coulson of his pursuits. Coulson “actively encouraged me to do it,” Hoare said.
After the New York Times scoop, Sean Hoare gave further details to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, including a specific claim that Andy Coulson had lied to Parliament when he denied all knowledge of phone-hacking in testimony to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry in July 2009. On that occasion, he conceded only that “mistakes were made” during his time as editor of the News of the World, but added that he did not condone phone-hacking and had “no recollection” of it taking place, also rejecting allegations that the News of the World had a systemic culture of phone- hacking.
Exposing these lies, Sean Hoare told the BBC:
There’s an expression: “the culture of dark arts.” You were given a remit — just get the story, that’s the most important thing. I’ve stood by Andy [Coulson] and been requested to tap phones, to hack into them and so on. He was well aware that the practice exists. To deny it is a lie. It’s simply a lie. It was always done in the language of, “Why don’t you practise some of your dark arts on this?” which was a metaphor for saying, “Go and hack into a phone.” Such was the culture of intimidation and bullying that you would do it because you had to produce results. And, you know, to stand up in front of a Commons committee and say, “I was unaware of this under my watch” was wrong.
In the Panorama interview, Hoare stated, “It was endemic, you know, it happened. People were scared. So if you’ve got to get a story, you’ve got to get it and you have to get that by whatever means. That is the culture of News International.”
Those were electrifying comments, from a charismatic man whose death can only seem suspicious, coming at such a time. I never met him, but Nick Davies of the Guardian did, and I found his tribute to Sean Hoare so compassionate, and also so informative about the amoral, headline-grabbing culture in which he lived — and which he turned his back on with such compelling remorse — that I’m cross-posting it below. Those in search of further confirmation about the “endemic” nature of phone-hacking cannot fail to notice that Nick Davies quotes Sean Hoare saying, “Everyone was doing it. Everybody got a bit carried away with this power that they had. No one came close to catching us.” Or that Davies himself notes that Sean Hoare “would hack messages and delete them so the competition could not hear them, or hack messages and swap them with mates on other papers.”
At a time when the reputation of News of the World journalists is at rock bottom, it needs to be said that the paper’s former showbusiness correspondent Sean Hoare, who died on Monday, was a lovely man.
In the saga of the phone-hacking scandal, he distinguished himself by being the first former NoW journalist to come out on the record, telling the New York Times last year that his former friend and editor, Andy Coulson, had actively encouraged him to hack into voicemail.
That took courage. But he had a particularly powerful motive for speaking. He knew how destructive the News of the World could be, not just for the targets of its exposés, but also for the ordinary journalists who worked there, who got caught up in its remorseless drive for headlines.
Explaining why he had spoken out, he told me: “I want to right a wrong, lift the lid on it, the whole culture. I know, we all know, that the hacking and other stuff is endemic. Because there is so much intimidation. In the newsroom, you have people being fired, breaking down in tears, hitting the bottle.”
He knew this very well, because he was himself a victim of the News of the World. As a showbusiness reporter, he had lived what he was happy to call a privileged life. But the reality had ruined his physical health: “I was paid to go out and take drugs with rock stars — get drunk with them, take pills with them, take cocaine with them. It was so competitive. You are going to go beyond the call of duty. You are going to do things that no sane man would do. You’re in a machine.”
While it was happening, he loved it. He came from a working-class background of solid Arsenal supporters, always voted Labour, defined himself specifically as a “clause IV” socialist who still believed in public ownership of the means of production. But, working as a reporter, he suddenly found himself up to his elbows in drugs and delirium.
He rapidly arrived at the Sun‘s Bizarre column, then run by Coulson. He recalled: “There was a system on the Sun. We broke good stories. I had a good relationship with Andy. He would let me do what I wanted as long as I brought in a story. The brief was, ‘I don’t give a fuck’.”
He was a born reporter. He could always find stories. And, unlike some of his nastier tabloid colleagues, he did not play the bully with his sources. He was naturally a warm, kind man, who could light up a lamp-post with his talk. From Bizarre, he moved to the Sunday People, under Neil Wallis, and then to the News of the World, where Andy Coulson had become deputy editor. And, persistently, he did as he was told and went out on the road with rock stars, befriending them, bingeing with them, pausing only to file his copy.
He made no secret of his massive ingestion of drugs. He told me how he used to start the day with “a rock star’s breakfast” — a line of cocaine and a Jack Daniels — usually in the company of a journalist who now occupies a senior position at the Sun. He reckoned he was using three grammes of cocaine a day, spending about £1,000 a week. Plus endless alcohol. Looking back, he could see it had done him enormous damage. But at the time, as he recalled, most of his colleagues were doing it, too.
“Everyone got overconfident. We thought we could do coke, go to Brown’s, sit in the Red Room with Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. Everyone got a bit carried away.”
It must have scared the rest of Fleet Street when he started talking — he had bought, sold and snorted cocaine with some of the most powerful names in tabloid journalism. One retains a senior position on the Daily Mirror. “I last saw him in Little Havana,” he recalled, “at three in the morning, on his hands and knees. He had lost his cocaine wrap. I said to him, ‘This is not really the behaviour we expect of a senior journalist from a great Labour paper.’ He said, ‘Have you got any fucking drugs?'”
And the voicemail hacking was all part of the great game. The idea that it was a secret, or the work of some “rogue reporter”, had him rocking in his chair: “Everyone was doing it. Everybody got a bit carried away with this power that they had. No one came close to catching us.” He would hack messages and delete them so the competition could not hear them, or hack messages and swap them with mates on other papers.
In the end, his body would not take it any more. He said he started to have fits, that his liver was in such a terrible state that a doctor told him he must be dead. And, as his health collapsed, he was sacked by the News of the World — by his old friend Coulson.
When he spoke out about the voicemail hacking, some Conservative MPs were quick to smear him, spreading tales of his drug use as though that meant he was dishonest. He was genuinely offended by the lies being told by News International and always willing to help me and other reporters who were trying to expose the truth. He was equally offended when Scotland Yard’s former assistant commissioner, John Yates, assigned officers to interview him, not as a witness but as a suspect. They told him anything he said could be used against him, and, to his credit, he refused to have anything to do with them.
His health never recovered. He liked to say that he had stopped drinking, but he would treat himself to some red wine. He liked to say he didn’t smoke any more, but he would stop for a cigarette on his way home. For better and worse, he was a Fleet Street man.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:
His suicide coincidentally happens on the same anniversary day as Dr David Kelly…. hummmm
Almost, yes, Aaron. Dr. David Kelly died on the afternoon of July 17, 2003, Sean Hoare on the morning of July 18, 2011. But that could well be coincidental. A pity for both, however, that they were caught up in two of the biggest British government scandals of the 21st century.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I’m sure it’s coincidental. Still, the entire affair concerning Gilligan and Kelly grabbed the attention of my wife and me for days.
It was extraordinary, George, wasn’t it? I was very sorry for Dr. Kelly, clearly a principled man who was sacrificed in a dark and deadly game, and I was also appalled how Alastair Campbell managed to cripple the BBC’s independence, because a reporter told the truth. Does anyone now doubt that the Iraq dossier wasn’t “sexed up,” as Andrew Gilligan claimed?
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Nope. In fact I was thinking of mentioning all that, but decided not to, not knowing your situation. But indeed, Dr Kelly’s “sexed up” re the Dossier, is burned into my mind. When Campbell crippled the BBC’s independence, If I remember rightly, by replacing the two administrators at the top, I wrote a friendly email to the regulatory agency in the UK [Ofcom] to tell the members how my wife and I felt, even though we paid no License Fee. BBC Radio 4 was so good then, that I was willing to pay a fee. Now I just stream it.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Actually, it was the most extraordinary period in all my years of radio listening.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
And I dugg this and am now sharing it.
Sandra Nichols wrote:
as i said yesterday this is probably just the first death..
Hi George, yes it was absolutely extraordinary. Ancient history now, of course, with a bunch of Tories in charge and out of control instead of an illegal warmongering “New Labour” PM and his Rottweiler Director of Communications.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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