The phone hacking drama is currently on every single newspaper cover, and with the arrest of Rebeckah Brooks this week, it won’t be going away any time soon. I know a bit what it feels like to feel somebody might be listening. – I’m not entirely sure if we were ever bugged but it sometimes felt that way.
My father Johnathon Aitken was finance minister and defense minister in the UK, during John Major’s term as Prime Minister, and the press were hounding us for all kinds of reasons, looking for gossip. From looking for my father’s affairs, to why he was successful, our lives were put under a microscope.
When my father was going through his dramas and we were being hounded by the press, we were always wondering if “somebody was listening in.” Just in case they were, we invented certain code words for certain things and invented other tactics to have some privacy, just in case we were being listened into. For example, we would say “call me at the White House”. I don’t remember who came up with the name, but the idea was to have a private conversation with lines that were safe as ones in the “White House”. The White House was our code name for the phone box down the road, and in that phone box I could talk to my boyfriend and say what I wanted and not be in fear that it would be in The Sun the following day.
It was stressful to have to watch what I was saying at dinner parties or a parties in case somebody overheard what I said, or even not being able to look scruffy on the way to the gym in case I was photographed “looking awful.” It’s great to be able to have the freedom to look awful. I know a few celebrities, who are hounded by the press and most of them seem to enjoy and want more of it, as it helps their career–though of course a few people like Hugh Grant have suffered.
But I also have an idea what it is like for those in the media who cross the line. A few years after my father’s scandal, he became friends with Glenn Mulcaire, who had intercepted phone messages from Clarence House and was key in the closing of Murdoch flagship News of the World.
The Aitkens and the Mulcaires go back a long way. When I was a teenager, Glen Mulcaire’s father Paddy Mulcaire was the leading dustman (trash collector) for the area around Lord North Street, Great Peter Street and other parts of Westminster, where my family lived. Paddy was well known as a local character straight from central casting, full of stage Irish expressions such as “top of the morning to you” and “wish you the luck of the Irish”. He was often asking as he looked after the dustbins when my father or I, would walk past he would say “how’s herself then?”–this was a reference to Paddy Mulcaire’s favorite customer, my grand mother Lady Penelope Aitken whose dustbins he would empty.
My grandmother loved gathering people around her for drinks, from high-flying politicians to famous actors, and she would ask Paddy round for a drink at Christmas and at other times of the year. A lot of their talk would be about Dublin as my grandmother lived in Dublin and my father was born in Dublin. He was a tremendous Irish charmer and it was often a neighborhood joke, the lady and the dustman.
Around 2003, my father got a letter from Glen, who had been sent to jail for helping royal correspondents phone hack royal phone calls. He wrote saying, “my father and your mother were very good friends and I’d love your advice.” Glen came to tea and my father became his mentor; a spiritual relationship between the two developed. People knew my father had mentored many prisoners out of Bellmarsh and Stanford hill get jobs; Glen was one of those.
I know Glen is repentant for the things he’s done and developed his Catholic roots. My father never talks about the private conversations he’s had with prisoners, which he views as sacred as a church’s confessional.
I ran into Glen one day in my fathers house, he was shy, and almost like a tense professor, charming and a bit of a nerdy technocrat but with a good Irish sense of humor. I got the feeling he always felt he had done wrong things as a cog of the greater machinery of tabloid news and put under tremendous pressure, given orders as part of a team. I think he worked phone hacking out himself as a phone engineer but I never asked him. I remember my father saying over a year ago about Andy Coulson, “it will all come out one day and he will have to resign.”
These days my father still won’t say much about his mentoring of Glen Mulcaire but when I asked him for a quote about the present situation he said “It’s like watching at 21st century Titanic going down. I guess I’ll be even busier as an experienced lifeboatman for those on the way to prison.”
As a journalist, a watcher, I tend to write nice stories which don’t really encounter the malicious side of journalism, and being a freelance one, and not a journalist attached to a paper, I generally write what I choose. We all love reading gossip magazines, but most of the people who choose to be in them love being written about – I’ve heard stories how some celebrities beg to be in them and set up their own photo shoots in order to be featured. It’s a game of give and take, with boundaries. But having had the experience of being “watched,” even for just a little while, has given me greater insight on how people’s boundaries should be respected.