Named in the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, and mentioned in books on blagging, John Ford speaks out for the first time about how he thought he was working in the public interest for the Sunday Times but now regrets much of what he did
It was a passion that John Ford first cultivated around the kitchen table as a child. He and others in his family were encouraged to try on different accents for fun; a gift for mimicry that defined Ford on the path to becoming one of the masters of Fleet Street’s notorious” darknes arts “.
He has now come forward for the first time to speak publicly about how he use his skill to obtain by subterfuge the personal fiscal details of hundreds of targets, from cabinet ministers to publishers, businessmen and celebrities.
In an interview with the Guardian, this self-styled” Beckham of the blaggers” describes in detail his run between 1995 and 2010, the techniques and cons he developed. He worked for private investigators but his principal client, accounting for half of his run, he says, was the Sunday Times.
He tricked call centre staff and company employees, typically using a fake identity, to obtain bank statements, mortgage records, utility bills and ex-directory numbers. He blagged unpublished autobiographies from publishers, emptied the bins of the powerful in pursuit of secrets.
At the time, he did not question the morality of what he was doing. He believed he was uncovering narratives in the public interest. He still feels pride over some of the stories he was involved in such as terrorism and political funding but is going public out of a sense of regret over others.” I am ashamed ,” he says.
” To my family, I was proudly referred to as John the journalist; the fact that I worked for the Sunday Times was a source of great kudos and respectability. But I was untrained, untutored and I was nothing more than a common burglar, even though I tried to dignify my activities as artistry under the catch-all title of blagger ,” says Ford, who was first introduced to the Guardian by Byline Media.
Ford worked off the books for the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, never entering its office, but earned, he estimates PS40, 000 a year from the title alone. He says he targeted the most powerful people of the epoch: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, William Hague, John Prescott, the former head of MI6 and celebrities such as Paul McCartney at the time of writing of his wedding to Heather Mills.
” It is such a rarified ability only a very few people were any good at it ,” he says. He counts himself as among the best, partly because- having been at a private school and university- he had been able to do Home County as well as working-class.” I was a posh blagger .” He boasts:” My failure rate was minimal .”
The controversy over newspaper ethics has been raging for more than a decade, focused on phone hacking and to a lesser extent the use of private investigators. Ford’s name has been briefly are referred to in both Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News and at the Leveson inquiry.
But the 52 -year-old has never spoken out before, and he believes his story represents something better:” It was about the tabloids, the red-tops. But it was about the posh newspapers too. This is about the Sunday Times, a paper with an estimable history and heritage .”
Ford was brought up in a family of fairground travellers who gave up the roam life to settle in south Wales, where his father operated a fruit machine business. In the evenings, when his father came home, one source of amusement was doing accents.” The infants would sit on a bench at supper and dad said here today:’ Do an Australian’. Then Scottish. Birmingham. Manchester. South African. Dutch. French. I had an ear for it ,” says Ford.
This led him to try acting, after studying drama and English at Bristol university. He worked for a theater company and did some standup comedy around London but struggled financially. By chance, in the mid-9 0s, he bumped into an old university friend who, knowing he was an actor, asked him to help out at an office of a private investigator, making a phone call pretending to be Nigerian. That led to work for another private investigator, based in Croydon. That company was used by the Sunday Times and a professional relationship began.
His first big success for the Sunday Times came in 1997 when he penetrated a blind trust set up for Labour donors by Lord Levy, one of Tony Blair’s main fundraisers. Soon after this, in 1998, according to Ford, the Sunday Times decided to bypass the private investigator’s office and committee him directly.
Ford worked on story after story; invoices depict his work was frequent and sustained. He says he penetrated Gordon Brown’s bank and mortgage account in late 1999 as the Sunday Times tried to find out if there was anything suspicious in the purchase of a property by the then chancellor a few years earlier from the estate of the controversial proprietor of Daily Mirror Robert Maxwell. He found nothing untoward. The newspaper wrote a story in January 2000 about how Brown bought the flat more inexpensively than the prevailing market price.” What right did I have to look at the chancellor’s bank account to stand up a non-story ?” Ford now says.
Blagging- employing subterfuge to obtain private information from banks, mortgage companies or utility firms- is illegal under the Data Protection Act 1998, which came into force in March 2000. But there is an exemption for newspapers if private datum is held or obtained for the purpose of journalism with a view to publication and with a reasonable faith that the publication is” justified in the public interest “.
Ford says he suggested to the Sunday Times stealing rubbish in the hope of finding secrets. He thought it was an original ploy, unaware that Benjamin” Benji The Binman” Pell was already engaged in a similar operation on behalf of the members of newspapers( including, on at least one occasion, the Guardian ). In November 1999, Pell pleaded guilty to five counts of theft when capture trying to take rubbish from a central London law firm, and was fined PS2 0.
Ford said the Sunday Times drew up a hitlist of a dozen prominent figures in the Labour government and they targeted bins in the spring and summertime of 2000. He hired a friend, whom he calls George, a student at the time, who helped him in what they refer to as “bin-spinning”. He and Ford would rifle through the rubbish in Ford’s office or living room.
It was Alastair Campbell’s bins that proved the most productive; the refuse yielding a string of memoes written by New Labour pollster Philip Gould.” Campbell was a chucker, Gould was a shredder ,” Ford recollects. A string of tales followed in the early summer of 2000, such as:” Secret memo depicts Labour fear of Hague ,” on 28 May and:” Secret memo says Blair is out of touch ,” on 11 June. Their true provenance was not recognise, Ford says.
Ford says he was tasked- typically several times a week- to obtain information for the Sunday Times. Invoices retained by Ford from the period confirm his run was frequent and sustained; he says he was paid between PS80 to PS120 for obtaining an ex-directory number and from PS120 to PS250 to get into a UK bank account rising to PS350 for international accounts. There were extra payments for more complex jobs.
Journalists who worked in the newsroom say his existence was an open secret. Junior reporters who wished to use him had to check with the newsdesk for approving and were told never to write his name down or task details on email. Ford said that he wanted to take a detailed description of requests merely over the phone to keep activities discreet.
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