Byline Investigates – Big News: Witherow's Leveson evidence questioned

RUPERT Murdoch’s leading UK newspaper editor John Witherow has been accused by a whistleblower of misleading the Leveson Inquiry into Press conduct over criminal news-gathering at The Sunday Times, Byline Investigations can reveal.

Key parts of the 66-year-old Fleet Street grandee’s sworn testimony to the judge-led probe in 2011/12 are being contradicted by new evidence from the paper’s former in-house private investigator John Ford, published for the first time today.

Last night, Ford said: “John Witherow was less than full and frank in parts of his Leveson evidence, some of which, in my view, is plainly misleading.

“I broke the law innumerable times on his newspaper’s behalf for 15 years and delivered some of the major scoops of his editorship. It’s inconceivable to me he did not know how these stories came about.”

Private Eye: John Ford is exposing 15 years’ criminality at Murdoch’s The Sunday Times

As part of an exclusive series of interviews with this website, Ford – a self-confessed ‘blagger’ and data thief employed secretly by The Sunday Times – has critically analysed Witherow’s written and oral evidence at the Leveson Inquiry.

And his appraisal explains why he believes Witherow – now editor of sister broadsheet The Times; jewel of Murdoch’s UK news publishing empire – misled Lord Justice Leveson by:

* SUGGESTING The Sunday Times only used PIs to trace addresses – while routinely employing Ford to obtain highly private information by deception, like private bank, tax, phone and legal documents.

* GLOSSING over Ford’s true illegal role by dismissing him an unnamed ‘researcher’ and ‘freelance journalist’ who did only ‘occasional’ work for the newsroom, and:

* FAILING to mention the 197-year-old paper was – at the moment of the Inquiry – funding Ford’s criminal legal defence over a police fraud investigation relating to work its journalists commissioned.

In addition, Witherow was wrong to deny The Sunday Times had never been involved in computer hacking – “to his knowledge” – as Ford now admits to hacking emails at least twice for The Sunday Times.

“Evasive”: former Sunday Times editor John Witherow
Credit: AFP/ Getty

Revealing how some 25 different journalists from the paper commissioned him to commit criminal acts between 1995 and 2010, Ford, 52, said: “Witherow did not tell the whole truth to Lord Justice Leveson, even though he gave evidence under oath.

“He was repeatedly evasive about my relationship with The Sunday Times’ and he should be called to account for that.”

Ford’s allegations are the first to draw one of Rupert Murdoch’s respected broadsheet newspapers into a hacking scandal like those dogging his British tabloid titles, causing one – the News of the World – to close down in 2011 after 168 years in print.

Our investigation carefully re-examines Witherow’s testimony to the first part of Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry, the remit of which was to look at Press ethics, practices, and contacts between papers, police, and politicians.

A second part was controversially cancelled – subject to a judicial review – last month by Conservative Culture Secretary Matthew Hancock, sparing Witherow further scrutiny.

Spared: Conservative Minister Hancock cancelled part two of Leveson

Part two intended to look at unlawful news-gathering and any police complicity in botched early investigations into Rupert Murdoch’s News International, but was on hold so as not to prejudice trials of Murdoch employees already facing criminal charges.

In its absence, Byline Investigations has offered Witherow and The Sunday Times extended opportunities to address John Ford’s admissions – but they have both declined to comment.

And last night Ford said: “In his Leveson evidence, Witherow confirmed he knew of my existence but refused to identify me by name, although he did name a second PI called Barry Beardall who also worked for the paper.

“He did not disclose the extent of the unlawful work I did for The Sunday Times, and most significantly, he did not disclose the fact that at the very moment he was giving evidence, I was on police bail over a job he – I was told – personally commissioned through his trusted Insight journalist, Claire Newell.

“I had been arrested for fraudulently trying to acquire a copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography, prior to publication, for The Sunday Times.

“I am certain Witherow knew perfectly well who I was and what I did – because I delivered many of the biggest stories of his editorship.”

“There was never any understanding that I should operate within The PCC code. There was never any understanding that I should not break the law. I was never given any legal or regulatory advice or training,” ~ John Ford

Witherow’s chance to discuss Ford came up when Robert Jay QC quizzed him specifically over private investigator use.

Jay asked: “Has The Sunday Times used, paid or had any connection with private investigators in order to source stories or information and/or paid or received payments in kind for such information from the police, public officials, mobile phone companies or others with access to the same?”

Witherow answered: “We have used private investigators and external providers of information to assist with investigations or to obtain information, such as addresses.”

He did not mention other types of ‘information’ Ford ‘obtained’ including privileged legal documents, mobile phone bills, landline ‘Friends and Family’ lists, ex-directory numbers, domestic utility bills, bank statements, mortgage accounts, confidential financial information, and tax records.

Judge-led inquiry: Lord Justice Leveson

Witherow did however acknowledge Ford’s arrest, but refused to call him a PI, instead trying to present him as providing only ‘occasional’ legitimate services.

Witherow said: “Separately, a freelance journalist/researcher who has done occasional work for the paper was arrested on suspicion of breaching the Fraud Act. The police investigation is still continuing.”

However, Witherow did not tell the inquiry his paper was footing Ford’s legal fees – in the tens of thousands of pounds – over the Blair autobiography. This would not be something a newspaper would offer to an occasional freelancer.

Ford said: “I maintain that failing to disclose that News International was paying my legal fees, in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, is a clear indication that Witherow was being, at the very least, disingenuous.

“Two months after he appeared in person at Leveson, on March 5, 2012, I was cautioned for three fraud offences. Yet in his Leveson evidence he does not refer to the frauds, which were commissioned by his paper, or that it was paying for my criminal lawyer.

In-house adviser, Times Newspapers lawyer Pia Sarma

The Sunday Times’ in-house lawyer Pia Sarma, who reported directly to Witherow, met with my solicitor, whose bills the newspaper were paying. I believe The Sunday Times paid my bill hoping the matter would be resolved as quietly as possible, and to ensure that I did not mention the involvement of the newspaper.

Witherow told Leveson his paper had a clean bill of health on illegally sourced material.

He insisted: “The newspaper has never paid police, public officials, mobile phone companies or others with access to the same information and, to the best of our knowledge, no agent operating for the paper has made or received such a payment.”

John Ford maintains Witherow was again being misleading. He said: “This statement is not accurate as I often had access to the ‘same information’ as public officials (for example tax records) and mobile phone companies (private phone bills).

“And I was tasked and paid by The Sunday Times to use pre-text methods, or blagging, to get that information on a serial basis.

“The key question is: who is the “our” that Witherow is referring to in his phrase ‘to the best of our knowledge’?

“I know for certain that two of Witherow’s managing editors knew what I did, authorised my use by reporters and signed-off my bills.

“Amused”: former Times Newspapers lawyer Alastair Brett

“I was also told that The Sunday Times’ in-house lawyer Alastair Brett knew what I did. I met Brett a number of times. I recall that he was amused by my remit on the paper.”

Witherow was also asked about computer hacking, stating: “To the best of my knowledge, we have never used or commissioned anyone who used computer hacking.”

Today, however, Byline Investigations can reveal that Witherow’s paper hacked computers by using “social engineering” to obtain password information on at least two occasions.

One occasion in September 2006, allegedly commissioned by the then Sunday Times’ News Editor Nick Hellen, was aimed at uncovering the source of a leak within the paper

Ford said: “Someone was leaking stories critical of newsroom behaviour. My job was to penetrate an AOL account to find evidence needed to shut down the mole.”

Ford also admits to hacking into the email account of Paul Church, a close supporter of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, which led to a story on December 4, 2005, about the party accepting donations from a tax exile.

Ford dismisses Witherow’s downplaying of his role as that of an ‘occasional’ worker as wide of the mark.

He told Byline Investigations he often worked four or five days a week for The Sunday Times, between Tuesday and Saturday – the customary working week at a Sunday newspaper.

‘Hacked’ story: Ford admits breaking into private email account of political donor

He worked for at least 25 different journalists and editors – including two Managing Editors – in three departments and was paid separately by the Insight, Home News, and Focus, sections of The Sunday Times.

To support his claims, Ford has produced News International payment slips as evidence of some of his work. Legal files relating to his fraud case also shows Ford was in contact with six Sunday Times’ journalists in the three months before his arrest.

Ford’s closeness to the paper was such he even holidayed with several senior investigators – and they stayed at his family home in Somerset.

He also attended The Sunday Times’ Christmas parties “like any staffer would”.

At one such event, at Jimmy’s Greek taverna on Frith Street in Soho in 2001, Ford cheered while a colleague stood on a table, drunk, and played duet with the “air-guitar world champion” hired in as the night’s cabaret.

“They were duetting back to back, dodging the ceiling fans, while everyone clapped and cheered,” Ford recalled.

Jimmy’s: Christmas party location

At another, this time at the Café Royal on Regent Street, Ford was treated “like royalty” by the paper’s celebrated Insight investigations team, of which he was a trusted member between 1995 and 2010.

“I was seated at the top table, surrounded by the best and brightest reporters the paper employed,” Ford said.

“These occasions were always raucous. I remember them vividly. All of this was entirely normal at the time. I was invited to these sorts of events because I was part of the furniture at The Sunday Times.

“I had to laugh when Witherow called me an “occasional” freelance journo and a ‘researcher’ at Leveson.

“There was a clear understanding that they had to operate within the law and the PCC Code and there was an expectation that they would behave properly,” ~ John Witherow

“Every one above a certain pay grade on the paper – and many below, in truth – knew what my function was; I was the guy the paper asked to break the law in order to make its best stories work.”

Witherow used his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry to make one extraordinary admission about Ford’s work stealing private mortgage details from Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister, for an Insight story.

Victim: Former Labour leader Gordon Brown at Leveson

The paper had previously denied being behind the bank blag and denigrated Mr Brown in an aggressive rebuttal article in 2011 when he accused them.

This time however Witherow was being examined under oath, and faced with the threat of punishment for giving misleading evidence.

Robert Jay asked him: “Abbey National, which held Mr Brown’s mortgage for the flat, wrote to you alleging that someone had called its Bradford call centre six times pretending to be Mr Brown and was given information?”

Witherow agreed: “That’s right.”

Jay went on: “Did someone on your behalf pretend to be Mr Brown to blag that information?”

The editor replied: “Yes,” while still failing to name Ford as the man commissioned to carry out the Brown blag.

Jay quizzed Witherow on the editorial safety checks that went on before a PI was engaged to commit a potential crime. He distanced himself from the decisions of his direct underlings.

Witherow said: “I have had no role in dealing with investigators. The contacts are with the reporters and approved by the News Management Team, and this practice was overseen by the Managing Editor (News).”

Witherow continued: “To my knowledge, The Sunday Times has only used two individual investigators/researchers in recent years and has built up a system of trust with these two individuals.

“There was a clear understanding that they had to operate within the law and the PCC Code and there was an expectation that they would behave properly.”

John Ford’s evidence again calls this into question.

Ford said: “There was never any understanding that I should operate within The PCC code. There was never any understanding that I should not break the law. I was never given any legal or regulatory advice or training.”

Witherow also said he had no knowledge of investigators being “paid to source or bring in stories”, and denied the paper used PIs for “fishing expeditions”.

Ford said: “Witherow makes a very misleading statement here – I did many fishing expeditions, on the instructions of editors and reporters including trawling bank accounts, phone billing data and their household waste looking for things that might be turned into stories.”

Ford maintains that Witherow knew exactly the illegal methodologies used on his paper to get stories.

Ford said: “His denials at Leveson effectively relied on clever semantics to repel scrutiny, rather than provide a genuine explanation of known events.

“But it was made abundantly clear to me by journalists that conversations took place with Witherow, and numerous persons on the news desk in relation to my activities. Witherow would circulate the office and pat shoulders.

“So he is one of two things: either incompetent in his job, or misleading and unreliable in his Leveson evidence. It’s up to him now to defend himself.”

John Witherow and News UK – owner of The Sunday Times – did not respond to requests for comment on this story.