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09.05.10

Did Murdoch's Hacks Bug Diana, Too?

The New York Times’ revelations about phone-tapping at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World sound eerily reminiscent of a phone scandal involving Princess Di.

I’m shocked, shocked to learn from yesterday's  New York Times Sunday magazine that the voice mail messages of celebrities have been bugged for tidbits of gossip—can you believe it?—by the Murdoch press in London. And that the bugging wasn’t, as previously thought, the activity of one lone hack, Clive Goodman, the royal snoop for Murdoch’s scandal sheet, the News of the World. Goodman, known by his colleagues as The Eternal Flame because he never left the office, went to jail in January 2007 for hacking into Prince Harry’s voice mail. The NOW’s congenial editor at the time, Andy Coulson, who insisted he knew nothing of his reporter’s disgraceful tactics, resigned in January 2007 but is currently riding high as PM David Cameron’s communications director. For how long?

Thanks to The New York Times, a stone has been lifted on a whole squirming zoo of low life in the News of the Screws.

Thanks to The New York Times sending in a heavy mob of Pulitzer Prize-winners for their story, a stone has been lifted on a whole squirming zoo of low life in the News of the Screws (as it is known in the U.K.). The Times story tallies with the outrageous antics chronicled in one of my favorite memoirs of Fleet Street, the 2005 Piers Morgan diaries covering his era as editor of the News of the World from 1994 to 1995. Piers, soon to take Larry King’s seat as CNN’s prime-time celebrity interviewer, recalls dispatching a reporter, Rebekah Wade, disguised as a cleaning lady in a uniform white hat, to steal for the News of the World all of the scoops in the serial extract of Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1994 biography of Prince Charles appearing in that Sunday's more respectable sister paper, The Sunday Times. “She headed down to the room where the Sunday Times inserts their sections into the main paper," Morgan wrote, "and hid in the loo for two hours waiting for the presses to start. The plan worked like a charm. As the Sunday Times started clicking off the press, Rebekah emerged from her hideaway, ran over, helped herself to a copy, then raced back to the NOW, with her hat falling off to reveal she may not be who they thought she was.” Dimbleby’s serial was ripped off wholesale for NOW, copyright be damned.

All fun and games, this anarchic, backstabbing behavior, except it wasn’t.

The New York Times exposé shows Coulson, the News of the World’s editor from 2003 to 2007, was fully cognizant of what his newsroom was doing at the time of the Goodman phone-tapping incident and has found to corroborate it with many shamefaced hacks who were inside the paper and now feel bad that Goodman took the fall. But it’s also clear to me that bugging at Murdoch newsrooms probably went further back even than Coulson’s era, back as far as the febrile coverage of Princess Di, when things went really vicious, in the early '90s.

The princess, you recall, kept insisting she was being bugged, a refrain that got her portrayed as loony and paranoid. “She had all kinds of theories about who was doing the tapping and who was listening to her,” her American boyfriend, Theodore Forstmann, told me when I was researching my biography, The Diana Chronicles, in 2006.

Diana’s New York girlfriend, the late Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis, told her husband Andrew that she was often aware of an “intrusive click and seashell noise on the line” that suggested an eavesdropper. “Diana would say, ‘It’s the Secret Service, don’t worry,’” Andrew told me. “I heard examples of it myself. I’d pick up the phone and hear the line being opened.” So convinced was Di of eavesdroppers that she twice had her rooms at Kensington Palace swept for bugs. She was convinced she was being spied on by the enemies in her husband’s camp, but it now seems more likely it was the Murdoch press who’d figured out how to tap her private line, or paid off one of those awful whispering butlers to do so.

It would explain, for instance, a mystery I spent much time trying to nail down in the chapter in The Diana Chronicles titled “Sex, Lies and Audiotapes.” The chapter discussed the provenance of the notorious phone call—known thereafter as the "Squidgygate" tapes—between Diana on her private line at Sandringham and James Gilbey, the man who tenderly called her “Squidgy,” and emerged clearly from the call as her lover. The conversation took place on New Year’s Eve 1989 and was published to scandalous uproar and princessly mortification. I never bought the explanation of how the Squidgygate tape came out from a pair of nosy radio hams and having read the New York Times I believe it even less today.

The two supposed eavesdroppers on Diana and Gilbey were Cyril Reenan, a 70-year-old retired bank manager in the country town of Abingdon in Oxfordshire, and Janet Norgrove, a 25-year-old typist from Oxford. Their stories were uncannily similar. They both said they’d bought scanners and just by chance happened to tune in to one of 220 million calls and out of the dozen British papers they’d both chosen to offer their tapes to The Sun.

Reenan was the first to go to the Sun. The story is that the paper responded to a tip from Reenan. He said he was highly nervous on hearing the voices and his impulse was to warn Diana. His second impulse, as a good upstanding Englishman, was to sell all rights to The Sun for £6,000.

The Sun is said to have responded by dispatching Stuart Higgins, then the royal correspondent, later the paper’s editor, to meet the “eavesdropper” at Didcot train station, 10 miles south of Oxford. Higgins recalls that he put the cassette in and listened to it “almost mesmerized” for 20 minutes. “The content was so explosive.” (Diana: "I don’t want to get pregnant." Gilbey: "Darling, that’s not going to happen, alright?” [The Sun, 24 August 1992]) “We knew we had a major, major story,” Higgins told Tim Clayton and Phil Craig in Diana: Story of a Princess.

The Sun got cold feet. Apparently it decided that printing Reenan’s tape might expose the paper to prosecution and that it could be commercially risky to reveal to the British public that their sweetheart was not all she seemed in the virtue department.

So how did the explosive tape get out? In a brown paper envelope with a Central London postmark, distributed by its possessor first to the Daily Mail, which did not publish, and to the National Enquirer which did—in August 1992. Thus laundered by the American press, it was then considered “safe” for The Sun to publish. But the story of the two eavesdroppers doesn’t make any sense. Mobile phone company Cellnet has said that its base site in Abingdon Town, the only one from which Reenan might have picked up Gilbey’s mobile signal, was not commissioned until March 1990, six weeks after this conversation.

Communications expert John Nelson of Crew Green Consulting Ltd. in Shrewsbury analyzed the tape and independently confirmed to me Cellnet’s claim that Reenan could not have recorded the call. Nelson told me he was so puzzled that he went to Reenan’s home in Abingdon—and ended up even more bemused. “I concluded his receiver could not have handled some of the frequency content on the recording,” he said.

Jane Norgrove, the other “eavesdropper,” would not allow Nelson or anyone else to examine her bedroom scanning setup, but Nelson’s conclusion also applies to her. “The recording could not have been made by Mr. Reenan’s scanning receiver or any other scanning receiver tuned to the output frequency of a cellular base station.” (This quote comes from his report “A Technical Analysis of the ‘Dianagate’ Tape,” January 22, 1993.) Inexorably, Nelson told me, “The truth is, Diana’s phone was bugged. That call had to have been recorded off a landline.” The tape, he added, also had telltale marks of having been clumsily doctored to make it sound to an unprofessional ear like a cellular recording. Nelson found it mildly surprising that the media missed that at the time. “Perhaps," he wrote me in an email, "the image of retired bank manager huddled over a scanning receiver and listening in to royal misbehavior was too appealing to abandon.” [All Nelson quotes, bar one highlighted above, come from his email to me November 24, 2006, and one quote from my telephone interview with him on November 20, 2006.]

Or perhaps it was because the British media had their own reasons to believe the accidental ham story. Reenan was most likely just a cut-out for the real snoop in the tabloid wars. Whatever the truth, in 1993, before Reenan died, he said he deeply regretted his role in the whole nefarious business. “I think I was set up… part of a sinister conspiracy.” By the way, the reporter who posed as the cleaning lady, Rebekah Wade, is now chief executive of Murdoch’s News International.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.