A Conman for Murdoch’s Newspaper Empire Confesses: Data-Theft Operation Hit PMs, Beatles, and MI6
Scotland Yard is facing calls to reopen investigation into Murdoch’s News Corp as it emerges that a fixer was cautioned on three counts of fraud.
LONDON—A former actor hired by Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times claims he systematically and fraudulently obtained private information on thousands of people over 15 years including operations to target two prime ministers, the head of MI6, and one member of the Beatles.
John Ford was arrested in September 2010 for trying to illegally obtain an advance copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography. Publishers Random House told police they had rejected The Sunday Times’ $750,000 serialization offer for the book.
Ford, 52, told The Daily Beast he had also fraudulently accessed the bank accounts and phone details of Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, future Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the brother of Sir Paul McCartney, whom he tried to trick into revealing the location of the former Beatle’s 2002 wedding.
Ford was cautioned on three counts of fraud for the Blair book deception in March 2012. The investigation into his case coincided with the height of the hacking scandal that gripped Murdoch’s media empire forcing him to shutter his other Sunday newspaper, the News of the World. It was widely believed that dirty tricks were confined to the tabloids, not the rarefied pages of Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper.
A forensic report on Ford’s communications—commissioned during the police investigation—concluded that he was in touch with six Sunday Times journalists during the summer of 2010 in the period when he was trying to deceive publishing and printing offices all over the world into sending him an electronic copy of Blair’s book by assuming a number of false identities.
Encrypted emails apparently sent between Ford and a member of Sunday Times staff were uncovered by police investigators showing a string of exchanges detailing efforts to intercept the book.
The revelation that a private investigator who worked with The Sunday Times had accepted a caution for fraud in that period may raise questions for the British police who were investigating News Corp, Murdoch’s media publishing company, over allegations of hacking, corruption, and bribery at the time. Most of the individuals accused were subsequently acquitted and there were ultimately no corporate charges brought against Murdoch’s papers.
A spokesman for the City of London Police said it was now impossible to tell whether they had passed this information on to the relevant police investigations at Scotland Yard—or to the Leveson inquiry, which was a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press set up following the phone hacking scandal.
Ford was on police bail for much of the duration of the Leveson inquiry, at which Sunday Times editor John Witherow admitted that Ford had been hired by the paper, although there was no discussion of the criminal investigation, or the true extent of his activities for the paper.
Ford decided to go public this week—first speaking to the BBC—after working with the independent media company Byline over the past year to collate the evidence of what he describes as a life of crime. He plans to launch a podcast with Byline Investigations and finish writing a book about his extraordinary career of deception.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded to Ford’s claims by calling for further police investigation. “This new evidence shows that even when under oath, what was then News International misled the Leveson Inquiry,” he said in a statement. “I am now calling for police to investigate this criminal wrongdoing.”
Just last week the British government announced that a planned second stage of the Leveson inquiry would be axed.
Some of Ford’s illicit techniques can be defended as necessary to pursue stories in the public interest but he claims that he was expected to invade the privacy, steal data, and raid the bins of major public figures whether or not there was a specific public interest inquiry underway.
A spokesperson for News UK, Murdoch’s British newspaper publishing arm, said: “The Sunday Times has a strong record of investigative journalism over decades and has employed many contributors and researchers to work on stories, or parts of stories. The paper strongly rejects the accusation that it has in the past retained or commissioned any individual to act illegally.
“Some allegations related to the research work of John Ford have been aired previously and we cannot comment on the specifics of these new allegations which all predate 2011.”
Sitting back in the armchair of a bohemian West London hotel as he answered questions put to him by The Daily Beast, Ford embarked on an extraordinary, twisting tale that charted his path from one of Britain’s great private schools to a life of derring-do, subterfuge and ultimately the criminal record of a common conman.
“With the greatest of respect, most people in the PI [private investigator] industry were working-class people who had no knowledge of anything beyond what they read in the Mirror or the Sun [tabloids],” Ford told The Daily Beast.
This quintessential Englishman played on his expensive education—as well as formal training as an actor—to transform himself into an array of characters to suit his latest quest.
He said turning over the disgraced former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken—who was jailed for perjury—had been one of the early calling cards that had impressed The Sunday Times. “I was all over him, I changed his passwords, I had full access to everything—his London homes, and Sandwich [a town in Kent where Aitken had a mansion known as the White House]—I changed his password to ‘hubris’ because I thought it was clever, and showed my classical education.”
Certainly “hubris” would have been an unlikely choice for many of Ford’s rivals in the private investigator game.
Ford was a struggling actor, writer and stand-up comedian in his 20s when he fell into that world. He had moved to London after attending the private Clifton College and Bristol University in South-West England. Living in a haze of dope smoke in shared houses all over South London, Ford hung out with fellow creatives hoping to make it big. Among the cast of characters who passed through was PJ Harvey, a musician, who would go on to win the Mercury Music Prize twice.
One of his roommates in a sprawling house in Tulse Hill was Peter Oswald, a young writer also dreaming of a career in the theater. Ford starred in one of Oswald’s early productions. “He did it brilliantly, he was an incredibly funny guy and incredible mimic,” Oswald told The Daily Beast.
The playwright, also 52, said Ford had once called him for a laugh pretending to be big-shot producer in America looking to transfer one of his early shows. “He had me going for about 30 seconds,” Oswald recalled.
That call came for real decades later and Oswald’s Mary Stuart show is currently playing in Chicago after transferring to London’s West End and then Broadway.
Ford’s path took a very different turn. In 1995, he spotted an old friend from Bristol in the street. He initially tried to slip by him without saying “hello” as he was looking dishevelled and feeling down about his stuttering career in the creative industries.
“I tried to make an escape and I heard him shouting ‘John, John!’” Ford said. “He said, ‘Are you still acting? You still do accents?’ I said, yeah. He said, ‘Can you do a Nigerian accent?’
“Within a few minutes I’m in his office round the corner on the phone to a bank in Switzerland.” Ford paused for dramatic affect and then continued in an exaggerated but pretty impressive West African accent: ‘I am Prince Ntunde… I’m waiting for a payment.’”
And that was it. He didn’t get a job with that agency there and then but there was soon a vacancy at another company and he was offered a training post, which consisted of being handed a copy of something called the Encyclopaedia Blagganica and told to get on with it.
His skill as an actor clearly helped, and particularly the accents and mimicry which were honed at a young age by his family—who were travelling showmen before they eventually settled down in Wales. Moving from Wales to an upper-class boarding school in England also forced Ford to train himself as a social chameleon adapting to his surroundings.
Those skills were further sharpened on stage in London where one of Ford’s acts was to perform as a kind of proto-Ali G—a middle class guy who spoke like he was part of a street gang.
The small private investigation operation in Croydon where he started had one particularly prized client “The ST.” As his skills improved, he would be given some of the ST work and he says he was eventually asked out for a celebratory dinner by a member of The Sunday Times staff who took him to the fashionable Bombay Bicycle Club where he says he got a curry and an offer he couldn’t refuse: stop giving away 80 percent of his fee to your boss and work for us directly.
Ford knew his boss would be furious and hack his own bank account if he suspected something was up so he says he began meeting this reporter in the McDonald’s in Wapping—on the basis that no one from The Sunday Times would ever be seen in McDonald’s—to receive new instructions and brown envelopes of cash.
Eventually Ford would leave his old company altogether and relocate back to the South-West from where he says he continued to work for The Sunday Times until 2010.
By now he was getting really good at it. “There was a sense of being an artist—because it was an artistic process—did my acting career help? I’d been a writer of drama, I’d studied drama so I understood motivation. Reverse engineering motivation and working out how to make people perform was the trick.”
In this case “perform” means call center operatives or targets handing over passwords or account numbers to one of Ford’s many characters.
Ford talks about his regular ones like “Roger McLeish” from the Royal Bank of Scotland as though they were real people. “Roger would soft peddle them,” Ford said, laughing. “They would hand over their details and I would open their bank account like a can of sardines.”
In a 15-year career he says he “housed” thousands of people—including half of the Labour Cabinet as well anyone who was in the news that week. Ford estimates that he was paid an average of £40,000 a year over that period, which equates to around £600,000 or almost $1 million in a decade and a half. A sample of News International payslips seen by The Daily Beast suggests he was paid hundreds of pounds some months and many thousands in others.
He says one of his victims was Sir Paul McCartney’s brother Mike McCartney. Ford says he used deception to gain access to his accounts and then called him under an assumed identity when the former Beatle was preparing to marry Heather Mills at a secret location.
Sir Richard Dearlove was head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service when it was his turn for the treatment. Ford said he found his address as he was listed on a local management board and from there he says he was able to “blag” his way into the bank and phone accounts of one of the country’s top spies.
“I lived a double life. Part of me was thrilled—I was doing stuff that was so outrageous and entertaining—on the other side I knew it was unsustainable.”
One of the darkest days in modern British political history fell on July 18, 2003, when Dr. David Kelly, a British biological weapons expert, took his own life. He had been exposed as the government mole who claimed to the BBC that the Blair government had exaggerated the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program to include what he felt was a bogus claim that WMD could be deployed within 45 minutes.
The WMD dossier was seen as one of the key arguments in justifying Britain’s hotly contested involvement in the war in Iraq.
In the fury that followed that BBC report, Kelly’s name was eventually released to the press.
John Ford told The Daily Beast that he was the one who then illegally accessed Dr. Kelly’s accounts in order to discover the location of his private family home in the Oxfordshire countryside. A Sunday Times journalist subsequently arrived at the gate of Kelly’s family home to question him.
The following week, Kelly was dead. His suicide came as such a shock in Britain that a public inquiry was held into the circumstances surrounding his death. That hearing heard from Kelly’s widow who said her husband had been “extremely upset” after talking to The Sunday Times journalist at his gate.
“No journalist had ever turned up before this. I was extremely alarmed,” said Janice Kelly.
Ford recounted this shocking tale just like he had done all of his other war stories. Did he not feel guilty for what had happened?
“I didn’t feel like anything I had done was material to his suicide,” Ford said. “I don’t know what happened in the conversation—the next thing Kelly was dead. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Pressed on his emotional response now, he said: “Well, you know, I’m ashamed of it all. And thinking about it—any right minded person would say that's outrageous, but what I was doing was showing off to these journalists that I was reliable—give me a project and I would get them a result.”
He said he didn’t worry that his intervention would become public. “We operated in a clever way,” he said—using burner phones and calling cards that disguised the numbers used.
You thought you were untouchable?
“Well, pretty much.”
That all changed on Sept. 9, 2010, when Ford was arrested.
Documents from the City of London Police file seen by The Daily Beast show that Random House and affiliated offices from New York to Melbourne received calls from Ford under a number of different identities.
Ford told The Daily Beast that he had been told explicitly that Witherow, the newspaper’s editor, wanted to get hold of this book. According to the police report: “Random House state that they turned down an offer of £500,000.00 from the Sunday Times to serialise part of the book prior to its release.”
Ford said he had been asked repeatedly by a member of The Sunday Times staff to see if he could obtain it anyway.
On July 1, 2010, the police report shows that an encrypted Lavabit email account was set up in the name of a Sunday Times journalist. Over the next six weeks detailed emails were exchanged with Ford’s Lavabit account tracking the progress of the book hunt.
In one message with the subject line “arabic version,” the account in the name of a Sunday Times journalist writes to Ford: “it seems they translate and print. main office looks like it is in lebanon. their production office number is 00 961....”
In another, Ford wrote “let’s use this email or text.....” The journalist replied: “oh, sorry forgot.”
It is claimed that there were 20 attempts to obtain copies in India, Australia, Italy, Canada, and Spain. Eight of these were made by a person purporting to be Mike King. Other attempts were made by people stating they were employees of Random House, their legal team, or indeed an employee of Tony Blair himself.
There were also attempts on Random House in the U.S. as well as the U.K. printing company, Clays. All of these failed, in part because the book was listed on the system under a pseudonym that Random House said only five people knew.
Despite these precautions, Ford insists that he almost got the book. He said the Indian branch had bought his plea that there was an emergency meeting with the author to make some last minute adjustments. He said they had agreed to send a pdf to his specially created email address [email protected] via YouSendit—only for it to transpire that the Indian office had not yet been given the transcript “for security reasons,” according to Ford’s email at the time.
“We’re so bloody close,” he wrote.
Instead it was the police who were closing in. The email address and many of the phone calls made during the global hunt were traced back to Ford’s address in Bath. A warrant to enter the property was granted to the City of London Police Economic Crime Department on Sept. 8, 2010.
He was arrested the following day. Ford then faced an agonizing 18-month wait to find out whether he would go on trial.
During that period, Britain was consumed by the phone hacking scandal—after it emerged that reporters at British tabloid newspapers had been listening to people’s voicemails without their permission.
Four months after Ford was arrested, another private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, admitted that the News of the World had employed him to hack phones. The fallout was so severe that Murdoch ordered the entire newspaper to be shut down.
The subsequent Leveson inquiry promised to get to the bottom of any other such misdeeds.
“During Leveson I was just a heap of jelly,” said Ford. “I just wanted to get a job and have a normal life, my drinking was out of control. The last thing I wanted to be was the next Glenn Mulcaire. I didn't want to be plastered all over the newspapers—I lived in fear.”
Ford’s name did come up at Leveson but only briefly on Jan. 17, 2012, when Witherow confirmed that “he was used by Insight on various investigations.”
There was no mention of the ongoing criminal proceedings against him.
Two months after Witherow’s testimony, Ford was told that he would be spared jail—and would not be forced to take part in a public trial when he formally received a caution on March 5, 2012.
Incredibly Ford’s fraud caution never made the news, but he was unable to forget. His vain dream of one day being employed as a member of staff in the office of The Sunday Times was over and so was the regular work.
Exactly five years later, he decided it was time to stop hiding and come forward. “I want to help change the culture,” he said. “The press doesn’t exist anymore in the same way—I’m looking forward to discuss the issues so that I can don a white hat properly.”
One of the ways the media has changed in that period is the growth of small, independent outlets which specialize in specific areas. One of the British upstarts is a site called Byline which was set up by former Daily Beast contributor Peter Jukes, after he had intensively covered the Murdoch phone hacking trials.
Byline continued to cover the Murdoch empire aggressively, and its coverage attracted the eye of Ford.
He first approached Jukes last March before beginning an exhaustive period of research and reporting with freelance journalist Graham Johnson after they were introduced by Jukes.
Johnson is familiar with what Fleet Street always called “the dark arts” as a veteran tabloid reporter. He was the Sunday Mirror’s investigations editor for six years.
When news of the phone hacking scandal broke, Johnson picked up the phone and called the police to say that he too had hacked phones, although not on the industrial scale alleged of others. “I thought it was quite a straightforward thing to do,” he told The Daily Beast. “Having been a crime journalist for 20 years, I’d always known it will come out in the end.”
Johnson and Ford’s work together may ultimately help to clean up journalism but it will do nothing for the reputation of the newspaper industry.
“He’s the only broadsheet blagger that’s ever been found really,” said Johnson. “What he did was put a posh veneer on it and that was kindred with the posh veneer that The Sunday Times have got because really The Sunday Times is the Sun and the News of the World dressed up for middle class readers.”
When Johnson came forward, he ended up with a criminal conviction and was sentenced 100 hours community service, and a two month suspended prison sentence
Ford knows he may face similar repercussions. “I’m excited because the truth is coming out, but also fearful,” he said. “I’ve carried shame all my life and this is an exorcism—what I’m looking for is redemption.”