was it a missing link in the Hackgate saga?

On the trail of Groucho members, Newscorpers, and Shadow Ministers

The story so far: we know that the Groucho Club run by JHJ Lewis indulged in unregulated surveillance. We know that a website using the same domain and name as The Groucho was an active paedophile linking forum for at least a year. We know that Mr Lewis has donated a probable six-figure sum over time to the new Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. We know that Lewis gave Hunt £4000 to visit New York, where he hob-knobbed with the Murdoch media elite. We know that ten days later, James Murdoch met David Cameron and confirmed that the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper would support the Conservative Party in the forthcoming election. And we know that Lewis was in charge of a major Tory paper on UK Tourism, one in which the Prime Minister took a keen personal interest. Today, in Episode Three of the Hunt-Groucho Saga, The Slog discusses what the chances are of these being significant, or simply coincidental, connections.

On 21st September 2009, a man described as having a London accent was disturbed attaching an electronic phone tap onto the telephone line at the filmmaker Tyrone Murphy’s Newport home. The police in Newport attended the scene after Murphy (a serial investigator of all things Groucho) disturbed the culprit and chased him off. Newport Plod seized electronic bugging equipment and tools left behind by the perpetrator as he fled. They also analysed CCTV footage of the incident, but nothing came of it.

Mr Murphy’s curiosity had been aroused over time by the seemingly generous appointment of surveillance cameras in The Groucho Club. As a result, he wrote about it in a book due for publication in 2009. On hearing of the book’s content, the Groucho Club took out an injunction against its publication, and sued Tyrone Murphy for libel. But at the very last minute, Lewis’s Club managers issued a discontinuance notice on the 3rd November 2009. That is, they accepted that their case against the Irish investigator had collapsed.

The Groucho’s libel case was blown out of the water by a statement from one of the its own managers (with copious exhibits that included internal e mails and CCTV footage from the club). In a nutshell, it supported Murphy’s contention that further cameras had been secretly installed at the Groucho, and these lacked any proper registration with the authorities as required under the Data Protection Act.

But one mystery remains as unsolved as the motivation behind Lewis’s steadfast support for his protege Jeremy Hunt: why did the Groucho Club need all these additional cameras following the antics of its members 24/7?

It’s possible I have stumbled on the explanation. It’s possible, in fact, that the entire celeb movement to stop the Newscorp celeb hacking culture is tied up in all this. It is possible – but in no way  proven – that one motive was blackmail. Pause for breath, and read on.

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A brief throat-clearing to start.

As the odd brainless troll has suggested here from time to time, yes, I used to be one of those despicable admen who helped sell things that created jobs and kept the consumption economy going. For a year in the 1980s I was the part-owner of an ad agency, Aspect Hill Holliday, with offices – literally – next door to the Groucho Club. I never joined and wasn’t asked to, but given that art directors and writers I knew well were members, I must’ve lunched and had meetings there 50 or 60 times over the years. When I left London and advertising, the Groucho was a natural place to meet up. In the last five years I’ve probably been a bit pissed and well-fed a dozen times or more there. And no, I’ve never snorted coke in my life.

I first heard about phone hacking at the Groucho Club – in the bar – during one late evening session there in Spring 2008. A celebrity who has since been a prominent mover against Murdoch was off his face on some marginally tolerated substance or other, and mouthing off to a lesser-known luminary about “the Screws (News of the World) c**ts” and how they were “going to get theirs”. There was also much drug-fuelled eye-swivelling and further banter about “tapping my phone”. It wasn’t until I’d had my ear stretching over to their table for ten minutes that it dawned on me they were talking about mobile phones and voice messaging. As his chin slumped towards his chest, the main mover in the conversation said “the f**kers aren’t gonna know what’s hit them”. What he actually pronunced was “zefuerzznogonknowassitem”, but I thought you’d find the translation helpful.

So my interest in nefarious Newscorpers began at that time, and spawned the coverage you can read about in full at HACKGATE.

A senior BBC comic’s agent said this to me in 2011:

“The celeb clique against Murdoch was born at the Groucho. Steve Coogan was a prime mover, but there were others. There was a poker school there. I think Steve played in it. Steve was, shall we say, a bit of a fan of mind-alteration at the time”.

I can personally confirm Coogan’s gambling interest. While waiting for a late friend (Groucho member Graham Hinton – Graham is always late) in the Groucho reception one October night in 2009, Coogan walked in wearing dark glasses, and clearly announced himself, “Hi, Steve Coogan – I’m here for the poker”. So either Steve is into S&M colonic irrigation, or he was there for a game of cards.

The Groucho Club has always maintained that it had only two surveillance cameras there, purely for the protection of its clients: but investigator Tyrone Murphy disputes this…and his victory in Court would tend to support his version of events.

“We have the fitters names and the locations,” he alleges, “but we never needed them. Their case collapsed because it was horsesh*t. To my certain knowledge they had at least two more cameras. My assumption was always that these were being used to spy on members and provide evidence of their peccadillos, but nobody could prove that now. I think the cameras were hastily ripped out after the case.”

Seems a bit odd to me to rip them out if they were solely for client protection. Also seems even odder to tell the Judge in Murphy’s Newport Court Case that they complied with Data Protection Act regulations, when they very clearly didn’t. Even odder still is that, according to sources involved in the case, within ten days of telling the judge they were DPA approved, the Groucho Club applied to have them approved. And then ripped them out.

There may, however, be tracks on this trail leading elsewhere. And the number of tracks on the trail may have confused some celebs as to the source of information about them. At the Leveson Enquiry, Steve Coogan for example talks about a dinner he had with a journalist. It was intimated to him that a conversation about his kids with the journalist was off the record. Details then appeared in short order in a Sunday Times article….a Murdoch newspaper.

Coogan assumed the hack had betrayed the confidence. But was he recorded by others….and the information passed on?

I have spoken to several celebrities and their agents over the last three years about their tabloid dealings. All but one of them (this group doesn’t include Coogan, by the way) trod warily about blowing the whistle on what they suspected as phone-hacking because they had been threatened with cocaine use exposure. The agent of one of these – a well-known model and TV personality – told me last Tuesday, “[She] was a regular at The Groucho. It had never occurred to me before that there might be visual evidence of substance abuse. But [name] was out of control at the time. She admits that, and she is now clean. But she spent a lot of time ingesting at The Groucho. Almost everyone did. And yes, she was told to cooperate or else her Coke habit would be splashed…but she’s still too scared to say that on the record.”

I can vouch for the level of white powder inhaled at the club over the years. I thought it completely normal in the late 1990s to go to the downstairs loo there and be deafened by the sound of sniffing. Was it a mystery virus, I would often wonder. It may well have been: I couldn’t possibly comment. But the current head of one massive international ad agency yesterday confirmed many similar experiences. “There was,” he observed, “a tendency after about nine pm for conversation to be like an Olympic 100 metres final”. As a comment threader here noted yesterday, “The Snooker Room was known as the Peruvian procurement office”.

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Newscorp tabloids thrive on two things: not getting caught, and threatening those who try to reveal the depths of their illegal depravity when intruding into a citizen’s private space. What the additional and unregistered system of surveillance at the Groucho Club potentially provided was the  means to keep dozens of favourite tabloid targets under convenient, secret surveillance – in an environment where they felt safe breaking the law…or talking about revenge on Murdoch.

I do not accuse the Groucho management of using it to that end, because I cannot prove it: the connection may be entirely innocent and simply a disturbing coincidence. But did Mr JHJ Lewis the obsessively supportive bankroller of Jeremy Hunt wanted the increased media influence his chum the Shadow Culture Secretary was soon to get? We already know that he gave Mr Hunt £4,000 to go to New York. To meet with three Newscorp companies. And have several meetings with James Murdoch.

Tot up his total donations to the career of Jeremy Hunt, and we are talking, probably, a six-figure sum.

Perry Mason would thus have added motive to means on that basis. But Perry Mason was merely a figment of Earle Stanley Gardner’s fertile Courtroom imagination, and not to be taken seriously in the real world. John Lewis OBE, a loyal servant of the Arts, has given dozens of famous Groucho members many years of eclectic enjoyment on his premises, and he should not be accused lightly. No Top Man – not Lord Green at HSBC, not Peter Sands at Standard Chartered, not even David Cameron in Downing Street – can be expected to know everything his workers are getting up to.

I’d be interested to know, however, what evidence those still in charge at the Groucho could bring forward to refute the perhaps scurrilous allegation that they used the former illegal surveillance system for nefarious ends. And I remain interested in them (or anyone else writing to jawslog@gmail.com) who can set my mind at rest once and for all about these remaining questions:

1. Why has John Henry James Lewis given Jeremy Hunt so much walking-around money over the years? Observe the following from the MP’s own Parliamentary declaration of interest file:

Overseas visits: 15-20 August, to Beijing, China, to the Olympic Games, funded by donations my office receives from Mr John Lewis, of Dorset  2 October 2008

18 June 2009 two tickets to a gala performance of la Traviata at the Royal Opera House, as guests of the Royal Opera House. Name of donor: Mr John Lewis

August 2009: fact-finding visit to New York. Name of donor: Mr John Lewis of Dorset.

Sponsorship or financial or material support: Financial support for my office costs from: Hotcourses* Ltd; an educational publisher. Mr John Lewis, Dorset (personal donation)

*A Slogger wag suggested yesterday that the NHS should be renamed the National Hotcourses Service. Amusing, I thought.

2. Why did Lewis’s daughter Daisy – then in her early twenties – give Mr Hunt £5,000? She is described in one or two places as “a unemployed Soho socialite”…so it would be odd indeed if she never attended her father’s club. Is she still in the habit of going there, or is she a young person of diffferent habits?

3. Why did The Sun (and the Sunday Mirror while we’re at it, dear Labour Party) feel so safe in manipulating celebs? Was it because they could prove Class-A drugs misuse?

4. Why has David Cameron promoted Jeremy Hunt to be Health Secretary….a man who some at high levels in the Conservative Party told him was an insanely unsafe appointment? They are the same people who told him over and over not to hire Andy Coulson. We now know why Mr Cameron ignored them. Do similar motives apply here?

This point deserves a degree of labouring. Ian Dunt of the politicsuk website described the elevation as ‘a move which stunned Westminster insiders. The beleaguered media secretary was expected to lose his job after he was found to have communicated closely with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp while making a quasi-judicial decision on the BSkyB takeover.’ Even the normally pro-Tory Right Daily Telegraph wrote, ‘Mr Hunt has already been the subject of jokes about his links with the Murdoch family over his handling of the BSkyB bid, with some quipping that he may sell off the NHS to NewsCorp. Others have questioned if Mr Hunt should be in government at all, given his record in the Culture post, let alone given one of the most high profile and tricky briefs in Whitehall.’ One Tory backbencher (in the Centre on most issues) told me two days ago, “It’s as if Cameron has a death wish. It is quite inexplicable. But it has happened. Frankly, it’s a gift to the other side. There were lots of rolling eyes when the news was confirmed.”

Why give yourself such a potentially explosive problem if you are already a PM under siege? Are there any clues at all so far in this Slog series on the Groucho, and Mr John Lewis’s influence within the Conservative Party, as to why the former Culture Secretary seems to be toxic, and yet somehow invulnerable?

While nobody should see these questions as a form of accusation, neither should they dismiss them as crackpot conspiracy bollocks. I would prefer to call it informed speculation. There have been question marks over some of the actions of the Groucho Club Management, Jeremy Hunt, JHJ Lewis and David Cameron over the years. It is perfectly right and proper in a free society to raise further questions if (a) there might be a connection to other illegal media surveillance and (b) it allows those involved to use the shiny blade of truth to prove those links utterly false.

LATER THIS WEEK AT THE SLOG: IS COKE USAGE NOW SO ENDEMIC IN THE ELITE, THERE IS TOO MUCH AT STAKE FOR THOSE IN POWER TO REVERSE IT’S MALIGN INFLUENCE?

Did you miss Episode 1 and Episode 2 of the Hunt-Groucho exposé? Follow the foregoing links now.

 

Appendix

Snapshot from the life of a millionaire trougher: JULY 2008 – MARCH 2009:

These are freebies Jeremy Hunt received as Shadow Culture Minister during that period…

Gifts, benefits and hospitality (UK): The FA provide me with tickets and hospitality at various football matches.

Registered 21 November 2008 20 February 2008, two tickets to the Brit Awards as guests of the BPI

21 November 2008 Ticket for BAFTA Awards, as guest of ITV. 

31 May 2008, two tickets for Britain’s Got Talent Final, as guests of ITV.

2 July 2008, two tickets for Wimbledon Men’s Semi-Final, as guests of the LTA. 

25 January 2009, in the course of an otherwise unregistrable visit I was upgraded from Premium Economy to Upper Class by Virgin Atlantic on a return flight from Nairobi.

Donation of ticket for me to attend the Conservative Party’s Summer Party on 17 June 2009. Payment for ticket, to value of £800, made directly to the Conservative Party.

24 March 2009, helicopter travel from London to Bristol provided by Lord Ashcroft.

8 February 2009, one ticket for BAFTA Awards, as guest of Pinewood.

18 February 2009, two tickets for Brit Awards, as guests of BPI.

21 March 2009, one ticket for England v Scotland rugby match at Twickenham, as guest of RBS.

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© This series and The Slog content John Ward, 2010-2012