Saturday 23 July 2011

Hackgate: the curious tale of Steven Nott, and a story the tabloids won't touch

*Updated again, Monday, see below

Shall we dare to step outside the boundaries of Broken Barnet once again? Yes? Ok.

Do you like a good conspiracy theory? Mrs Angry does.

Does Mrs Angry believe any conspiracy theories are ever true? Sometimes. By the law of probability, some percentage of all such speculation must be true: the art lies, of course, in distinguishing between what is credible, and what is fantasy.

The wildly imaginative side of Mrs Angry is occasionally susceptible to belief in stories of this nature, but this loopiness is generally balanced out, eventually, by the more cynical, boring and rational side of her nature, usually persuading her to reconsider the evidence. And as is frequently is the case in Mrs Angry's life, what seems at one point to be an interesting possibility usually turns out to be an enormous disappointment.

There are exceptions, however. Recently, for example, after becoming slightly alarmed by some of the weirder visitors to this blog - and despite some mirth in certain quarters over her latent paranoia - Mrs Angry raised her concerns with someone who happens to be one of the few people in the country who has, well, a priviliged overview of such matters. This person not only confirmed her suspicions, but left her reeling with an insight into the whole issue which was far worse than she could have guessed. I wish I could tell you more. You would be horrified, especially if you have any concerns about civil liberties, invasion of privacy and all that old wishy washy liberal stuff.

And talking of invasion of privacy, and conspiracy theories, or not, here comes another story which you may like to consider.

A twitter follower recently brought this information to the attention of Mrs Angry, and she has been mulling over the contents since then, undecided whether or not to bother with it, until she read about the latest developments over night in this constantly evolving story, and thought she ought to mention it.

According to the Independent today, former Mirror journalist James Hipwell has alleged that phonehacking was widespread in Fleet Street at a period much earlier than has previously been admitted: he worked on the Mirror under the period of editorship by Piers Morgan and claims that in his time at the Mirror the practice of hacking by reporters was 'endemic; and 'seen as a bit of a wheeze'.

Mr Hipwell has something of a chequered past himself, of course, having been convicted of a form of 'market abuse' related to buying shares while working on the 'City Slicker' column. And Trinity Mirror (who have been known to call in on Broken Barnet from time to time: hello boys) have disputed these allegations, claiming that they are 'totally unsubstantiated, and stated: 'Our journalists work within the criminal law and the PCC's code of conduct'. As MP Louise Mensch noted on Newsnight last night, of course, the statement uses the present tense and does not refer to past practice.

Let me now draw your attention to the case of a Mr Steven Nott, whose contribution to the phone hacking scandal can be read in full at his own site:

Mr Nott's interesting story begins at some point early in 1999, when he was a salesman working for a food manufacturer, based in Cwmbran. One day on his travels, Mr Nott had some sort of prolonged difficulty in using his mobile phone. He contacted Vodafone in order to sort this out, and explained the problem he was having in accessing his voicemails. To his amazement, the Vodafone operator explained that this would be easy to overcome, as he could use a default number, which she passed on, in order to gain access. This number was applicable to all customers.

By further investigating this procedure, he soon realised the enormous implications such open access must have for the security of all those using similar phones: he was horrified at the potential consequences for national security, political communications, and of course the ease with which the press might be able to use this method of monitoring politicians, the Royal family, leading figures and celebrities. Mr Nott resolved to do something about his accidental discovery, feeling it was necessary to publicise the matter as soon as possible, as a matter of public interest.

Sometime in the summer of 1999, Mr Nott approached the Mirror newspaper, and explained to them at some length the enormity of the discovery he had made: he claims that the paper was extremely interested in the story: 'they said it's possibly going to be one of the biggest stories that decade' ... This was, as it turns out, a fair assessment of the importance of the story, of course: just got the wrong decade, didn't they? Steven Nott tells us that the Mirror reporters repeatedly assured him that the story would be featured, but after twelve days of being told this it became apparent that the story would not be run after all.

Two weeks after first contacting the Mirror, Steven Nott approached the Sun, where at the time a certain Rebekah Wade happened to be the deputy editor: he says he went to Wapping for a meeting with a representative of the paper who again assured him that the story would make the front page because of all the implications, not least the potential threat to national security.
Again, despite all the promises, the story was not used.

Mr Nott contacted the BBC: they filmed an interview with him sitting on Percy Thrower's bench in the Blue Peter garden, but nothing further happened. He did an interview with Adam Kirtley for BBC 5 Live, broadcast on October 22nd 1999.

Steven was so determined to keep up his campaign he directly contacted the security services, New Scotland Yard, and even the DTI, as well as his own MP: he says nothing came of any of these approaches. He was filmed at home for ITN and was interviewed by Chris Choi, but this was not aired. Even now he is finding difficulty in getting his story out into the wider public arena: why could this be, do you suppose?

Reading this story it is clear that Mr Nott worries that instead of drawing the attention of the relevant authorities, and the general public, to the threats posed by the vulnerabilities in the voice mail system, that he may perhaps have inadvertently given this information to the tabloid press and enabled them to spend the next twelve years spying on the private lives of figures in the public eye. As well as feeling guilty, he feels hugely frustrated that his concerns have been ignored by so many sources for so long. He states that he has now been interviewed as a part of Operation Weeting, and awaits the outcome of that investigation.

On his site there is an edited clip of footage with Steven giving an account of his attempts to publicise his involvement with the phone hacking issue. He appears perfectly credible to me. Does it matter, though, what he is saying, if true?

It is significant because even if he did not alert the tabloids to the possibilities of such easy access to voice mails,and of course they may well have been practising the dark arts of phone hacking long before, clearly he did have extensive contacts with the press and media, and the decision was repeatedly made not to run the story which would have exposed the practice. If James Hipwell's allegations are correct, the timing of this story to the summer of 1999 would fit very well, and would suggest that in fact more than one paper was using hacking at least by the latter part of that year.

Why was Steven's story not run? Here we go then: you now have the choice of two explanations - conspiracy, a decision to retain the use of a powerful and lucrative method of obtaining material: or was it simply indifference?

After the week we have just had, I think I know which way my money will go.

How about you?

* Updated Sunday 6.30pm: via twitter, @DavidAllenGreen, legal correspondant of the New Statesman, who also blogs as 'Jack of Kent', reminds us of an interesting paragraph in a Guardian story, published on the 1st May, 2002, which includes an alleged mysterious remark from Sun editor Dominic Mohan, in regard to Vodafone: take a look. Whatever does he mean? -

**Update Monday morning: Steven Nott has now left a long comment on the Jack of Kent blog, which you might like to read.


Mrs Angry said...

oops thanks to Joe Angry for the photo xxx

baarnett said...

From the New Statesman web site's comments, it seems a toss up between:
- wide open default passwords on Vodaphone, and
- more elaborate phone-hacking by the Mirror, known about at the Sun (where they now call it foam-hacking).