I was features editor at .net magazine in Bath and, as several of my stories about internet dramas had been followed up by News of the World reporters, I applied for a job there and got an interview on December 22, 1999. I was a fan of Mazher Mahmood, their “Secret Sheikh” investigative journalist who had a silhouette byline due to his undercover work and last year exposed the cricket match-fixing scandal. At the time, it was the largest selling paper in the English-speaking world and was renowned for getting truthful scoops. Its motto: “All human life is there.”
There was a huge towering clock outside, and inside were several TV screens (the Sky channel had a fuzzy picture) and a large photo of Rupert Murdoch. The atmosphere was very buzzy.
Phil Hall was the NOTW editor, and I was introduced to him, but interviewed by the assistant editor, Greg — can’t remember his surname. I was shocked he put his feet up on the desk.
He said the job would involve spending the first six months doing night shifts, sitting in a car outside a politician’s home and watching for mistresses or lovers coming or going. [I later heard from Sun reporters that NOTW reporters had to pee into bottles during these stints. Don’t know if that was true or they were having me on.] I’d have to collect the evidence of entrances and exits in as many formats as possible — audio, photos, and most preferably video. These would all be kept indefinitely in their extensive filing system. Most of the hard core facts were uncovered by private investigators, and the large folders of facts would be given to reporters to write up the basics, which would be passed to talented sub-editors to write into the colourful moralistic style.
He outlined that because I’m a woman, after the initial six months of sitting in a car, I would spend the next year covering “babies with leukaemia” stories, children with life-threatening illnesses and attending paediatric hospitals. Then, after I’d done this 18-month apprenticeship I might be able to do general reporting.
He said accuracy was highly important, and mentioned a story they’d run about a former Page-3 model who’d become a prostitute. The problem was, the prostitute only looked exactly like the Page 3 model, but she wasn’t. They never found out why she’d claimed to be who she wasn’t. The real Page 3 model had just announced her engagement. “NOTW ended up paying for her wedding AND a house,” he said.
Then he ran through a scenario of how to cover a scandal, asking: “If a male Minister is having an affair with a mistress, who do you contact first — the wife, the Minister or the mistress?”
I guessed the wife, but he said: “None. First you get photos of the bloke going to and from the mistress’s house. Everyone has patterns and does things on certain days.
“Then go to the wife with the evidence. There’s a 50/50 chance she’ll be upset. Don’t go to her before you’ve collected the evidence; she could still be friends with her husband and warn him that NOTW is on to him. Then he could move out to a flat and we’d have no story.
“If the wife won’t talk, go to her father. He’ll spill the beans. As a man, he’ll have a natural instinct to protect his daughter, and you’ll be able to tell if he always suspected his son-in-law was playing around.
“Don’t go to the kids if they’re teenagers or younger.”
Thus enlightened, we went for a walk through the newsroom and there were filing cabinets everywhere and thick folders filled with all the collected data stacked high on desks. They needed three types of proof for everything as defence for court cases. The thing that struck me was the journalists were mostly men who looked frazzled and hard-bitten. I realised it wasn’t my thing.
In comparison, later I walked through the Sun newsroom and it was neat, clear of clutter and very tidy. There was no need for the Sun to bug phones — I did some night shifts and the poor reporters had to listen to endless calls from drunken, heart-broken celebrities prattling on for hours (and ringing back several times each night) about their love lives. The reporters would listen, offering advice like a therapist, and hoping for a few snippets, but usually it was a long repetitive whinge.
The only scandal I encountered at UK publications was that some women’s magazines made up stories, accompanied by photos of backpackers. I only discovered this when I tried to contact the writer of a story that was about a “tragic” holiday trip that had me in stitches, as it was so melodramatic and I couldn’t believe it was true. It turned out the writer’s name was made up too, and it had been written in-house. I also had queries and tried to contact the writer of an advice column I had to sub for a TV magazine, which didn’t make much sense, but I never got through, as it had allegedly been written by a “psychic dog”.