FORMER Bede pupil Neville Thurlbeck has travelled a long way since he left Sunderland for university in 1980, clutching his school’s Rotary Prize for English.
Sunderland reporter Neville Thurlbeck speaks out
Since then he has collected possibly more prizes for journalism than any other Fleet Street reporter after breaking some of the most sensational scoops in the past two decades at the News of the World.
His investigations jailed Jeffrey Archer and exposed the extra-marital affairs of David Beckham. And he rose to the dizzy heights of News Editor at the biggest selling newspaper in the world. But if Neville enjoyed the highs of national newspaper life, he has certainly endured its lows.
Caught up in the phone hacking scandal due to the infamous ‘for Neville’ email, he was arrested and eventually fired by News International after they closed the paper down in July.
Neville has been on police bail for almost a year and denies the allegations against him. He has not been charged and has turned down the offer of possible immunity from prosecution in return for giving evidence for the Crown.
He is now the PR Director for Talking2Minds, a forces charity which treats those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He lives with his wife and 13-year-old daughter in Esher, Surrey. His eldest daughter Kate, 18, is reading Classics at Kings College, London.
Here, Neville reveals how he fell into newspapers by accident and gives R&R magazine an exclusive insight into some of the biggest scandals of modern times, including the one which closed the News of the World last year. And he reflects on his previous life growing up in Sunderland.
LEAVING Sunderland in 1980, like most teenagers, I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do with my life.
I certainly wasn’t planning on a career in tabloid journalism. Being young and idealistic, I had lofty ideas of working in theatre.
But bizarre things happen to young men in a hurry. And they certainly happened to me and I was blown way off course.
Fancying a bit of adventure, I took a job as an English teacher at a boys’ boarding school in the Sudan in 1984.
The teaching was dull. But the bloody civil war, revolution and 1984 African famine certainly weren’t. I was hooked on the idea of becoming a reporter.
But could I write? Writing for newspapers is a totally different discipline to writing essays. I tried my hand and found, surprisingly, I could.
So by way of the Harrow Observer and the Western Mail I served a brief apprenticeship in local and regional journalism.
Then in 1988, I ended up selling a story to the News of the World simply because they were the best payers.
The newspaper offered me £750 for the piece and asked if I was happy with that. Seizing the moment, I asked for £750 plus five days work in the office to show them what I could do.
The first day in the office was nerve wracking. I was 26 years old and most of the reporters then were seasoned veterans. I expected it to be like Dante’s Inferno except with the flames coming out of the keyboards.
Instead, I was met by a steady stream of well spoken, polite, well dressed men and women, everyone eager to put me at ease and take me off to the canteen for a coffee or the pub for a beer. I stayed for two years, still working on the regionals but working every Saturday and holiday I could.
Then just when I thought I was about to get a staff job, I was fired. The editor, Patsy Chapman, had got it into her head that I was a spy for the Sunday Mirror!
Sunday newspaper editors are always anxious about protecting their exclusives from rivals and there had been some leaks. I was apparently spotted curiously looking over the shoulder of one reporter as he rattled out the following day’s front page splash.
In the febrile paranoia, I instantly became chief suspect number one and was never asked back. Luckily, Today, then a sister paper of the News of the World, snapped me up straight away and I got my first staff job there in 1991.
In 1994, Patsy left and Piers Morgan arrived and I was one of his first hirings.
For the next 17 years, life was dramatic and exotic. I found myself in Australia, the USA, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco and virtually every country in Europe on a regular basis. In those days, the News of the World sold 5 million copies a week and was read by 15 million people – about a third of the adult reading population in Britain. As a result, editorial budgets were huge, especially compared to the 600,000 selling Today.
So on the really big stories, money was no object then. I remember being told to follow Diana Princess of Wales to the south of France where she was believed to be meeting a man who later turned out to be her lover, a Mr Oliver Hoare.
I’d hired a small VW Golf to take me round the narrow, winding cliff-top roads of Cannes and Monte Carlo which a swaggering, Alpha male paparazzo insisted on driving himself at 80mph as we approached hairpin bends.
It was only by threatening to throw his cameras out of the window that I managed to persuade him to swap seats!
Our job took us to the Hotel du Cap D’Antibes, just outside Cannes. The cheapest room was £600 a night. A gin and tonic £25. And this was 1995!
Including dinner, there wasn’t much change from £1000. It seemed a particularly vulgar place too for my taste. But to the News of the World, it was essential to stay there and get our story and the cash was wired over in the morning.
Other stories you may recall include Jeffrey Archer’s perjury and David Beckham’s affairs.
I’d like to be able to say catching Jeffrey Archer was a complex and highly organised affair. But in Archer’s case, one merely had to rely on his insecurities. He was particularly anxious about the activities of a rival journalist who was peeling away the layers of his false alibi story.
This was the alibi he had prepared to cover his tracks the night he slept with the prostitute Monica Coghlan in the libel trial where he won £500,000 damages by committing perjury.
My simple plan was to use one of Archer’s friends Ted Francis, who he had fallen out with, to call Archer and put to him the completely invented scenario that the journalist had obtained Archer’s credit card receipts which proved he was not at the place his alibi stated.
The journalist, ITN’s Michael Crick, had to be kept well off the pitch when this was happening in case it unravelled. So I arranged for him to be flown to Hong Kong to follow up an entirely bogus lead on Archer I had planted with his bosses.
Archer panicked, confessed and asked Ted to keep schtum. The call was taped and Archer was jailed after I gave evidence at the Old Bailey.
It won four scoop of the year awards. The whole job took just a few days.
In November last year, Michael came to my home to interview me for Channel 4 News. I pointed to the awards in the study and said to him, ‘Now before you get on your high horse with me, I got these for nabbing Jeffrey Archer from under your nose chummy!”
He reminded me of the Hong Kong incident and we both roared with laughter. In truth, I got that story by standing on Michael’s gigantic shoulders.
Although sensational scoops do not mean sensational sales, there is always the exception to the rule.
The News of the World’s ‘David Beckham’s Secret Affair’ splash is one of them.
That scoop, in April 2004, put on more than 600,000 sales and it defined Andy Coulson’s editorship and won Scoop of the Year for me for a second time. For that, we paid Rebecca Loos a hefty six figure sum.
My expenses alone amounted to precisely £45,285.38. This was because the operation was carried out in such secrecy, we didn’t even want to trust any agencies with our travel itineraries in case they were leaked.
That meant I had to fork out personally for everything, including return flights to Australia and hotel rooms there for six weeks for myself and a female contact.
Then there was six weeks in Spain with Rebecca Loos. Hotel rooms for both of us for four weeks plus the hire of a secluded villa in Sotogrande for two weeks where we hid Rebecca from the world’s press who were trying to find her.
Then hire cars, meals for the girls etc. It was hellishly expensive and it all went on my Amex card. The managing editor Stuart Kuttner, a forensic examiner of expenses, signed off every one for me. With Stuart, trust was everything and if you lost his trust, you never got it back. Fortunately, we had a very good working relationship.
The cost of the enterprise was more than off-set by the leap in sales. And the worldwide syndication ensured we made a very healthy profit. Under the noses of the assembled paparazzi, I spirited Rebecca away in the dead of night from her home in Madrid, kick-starting weeks of painstaking work on proving her story was true.
And no, it wasn’t phone hacking which nailed it.
I’m afraid the proof boiled down to a two word diary entry which I found in a cardboard box. We were just about to call it a day and come home when I unearthed the crucial evidence. Suddenly I was in a conference call with the editor Andy Coulson, his deputy Neil Wallis, legal manager Tom Crone and an outside barrister. A few hours later, the presses began to roll.
And so did my career. News Editor and then Chief Reporter of the News of the World were two of the most pressurised but enjoyable roles for a tabloid journalist and I was very lucky indeed to occupy both jobs.
Running in tandem with my News of the World career was another unorthodox role for the intelligence gathering arm of the police.
During the 1990s, most of my time was spent undercover for the News of the World exposing crooks such as gun-runners, drug dealers, money launderers, and paedophiles. This was especially stressful as it involved assuming an identity and infiltrating gangs which had some pretty tough people among them.
Unfortunately, my rather clean-cut look made me an unlikely undercover ‘villain’. So the identity I tended to use was that of a cashiered army captain who had been drummed out of the army for dealing drugs.
And now, fallen on hard times, I was making ends meet selling illegal firearms/laundering money/recruiting foreign slave labour/selling cocaine – depending on who I was targeting. I was even recruited by a jealous husband to kill his wife. The man, Jasbinder Aheer, is still serving a lengthy prison sentence.
There was the ever present anxiety that your cover could be blown and your health could suddenly take a turn for the worse! Especially if they found the recording equipment I carried about with me.
This was the period when I was Chief Crime Reporter for the News of the World. The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) realised I was a fertile source for information concerning serious organised crime and recruited me as agent 251, codename George in 1995.
NCIS was the interface between the Special Branch, MI5 and all the regional constabularies but with no powers of arrest. They were investigators only. All matters concerning serious organised crime were of major interest to them. Anything concerning terrorism went to MI5.
My contacts in the underworld gave me a very clear picture of what was happening and the police and the security services were eager to get a good view too.
In return, I received a lot of very useful intelligence for my newspaper so it worked both ways. The most tense moment in this part of my career was when I infiltrated a gang importing a lethal drug called phencyclidine, or PCP. The infiltration had taken many weeks and NCIS were especially keen for me to reel the main gang member in.
It had never been found on British streets. But it was well known as having horrific side effects in the USA. Abusers had been known to carry out random, brutal murders. Several had self mutilated to an appalling degree. One man had gouged out his own eyes. They were eager for it not to take a foothold in the UK.
After many weeks gaining their trust, the gang was ready to hand me a large batch of the drug.Alone, in middle of a field, the gang walked towards me. Hiding in bushes and behind walls, were several armed police. When the drugs were in my hands, my signal to the police was to take off my hat. At that moment, they swooped and cuffed the gang members. They cuffed me too as part of the act in case the gang realised my role and drew their weapons.
The police didn’t even draw their weapons. And they didn’t even break into a sweat. Please remember this kind of courage the next time you feel like criticising the police force. Fortunately not a shot was fired and the gang received long jail sentences.
Working like this, as a reporter for the News of the World, reporting also to NCIS and acting the part of a disgraced army officer, was a strange kind of ‘treble life’ and one which occupied most of my working life. In 1997, I was away from home for nine months. In 2004, for six.
In 2009, events took a turn for the worse at the News of the World and I found myself embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of recent times. My Bede friends know me as ‘Nev’, my St Aidan’s friends know me as ‘Ned’. But to most of the British public, I’m ‘for Neville’.
The fatal email contained the hacked voicemails of the Professional Footballers’ Association chairman Gordon Taylor. I have always denied hacking these voicemails or commissioning it to be done.
The phone hacking scandal is still rumbling on and we must await the outcome of the police investigation and any court cases before we can safely discuss it.
My main sadness is that it led to the closure of a paper which, although not without fault, had been a national institution for 168 years.
“Fortunately, I have been able to retain the services of a man who is regarded as one of the best lawyers in London , Henri Brandman of Henri Brandman and Co.
“Henri was the lawyer News International used to turn to in a crisis for many, many years and I have known him personally and professionally for 15 years. I couldn’t be in better hands.”
The past is a foreign country, as they say and my life is happy and extremely busy. I can’t stop the wind but I can certainly adjust my sails.
It’s also allowed me to make more frequent visits back to Sunderland where my mother and sister still live.
They have been enormously supportive of me during the past two years. As have my friends. I may have left home 32 years ago but my best friends today are the same as they were in 1970. My friends from Barnes School and Bede School I have known since 1966. Five or six of us visit each other frequently and go on holiday together every year without fail. Sometimes twice. Another, who wasn’t part of the same group, I visit frequently in Wiltshire. We shared digs together at university too and remain extremely close friends.
My friends from St Aidan’s all have severe drinking habits one has to be wary of too much contact here – something to do with drowning Catholic guilt complexes. I was back in Sunderland for a week in December and also in February. I dropped into my old local the Museum Vaults where the landlady Sarah Wilson and her family have been in charge since 1978. She gave me a big hug and wished me luck.
Thank you Sarah, that meant a lot to me.
Every time I walk the streets of Sunderland, I am met by people who cross the road to wish me luck. If they are younger boys from school, I often don’t even know their names. But the kindness of strangers is a very touching thing.
My job as the PR Director for Talking2Minds brings me in almost daily contact with the media, especially in the run up to the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. Many of those veterans are still suffering from PTSD and the charity raises money to treat them.
It’s enormously fulfilling work and with recent conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, an ever growing need.
The rest of my time is spent running a property company Thurlbeck Homes which I set up in 1998 and another smaller one, Thurlbeck Homes Ltd.
I had neglected them a bit when I was working for the News of the World but they are now a lot leaner and more efficient.
And the words I hear most frequently in the home now are, “It’s great to have dad back”.
It’s an odd thing, but whenever I get sacked by the News of the World, life always seems to get better!
Despite the whirlwind swirling around us, we have managed to keep a level head.
Kate, my eldest daughter, buckled down to her studies and achieved astonishing grades in her AS levels. She came top in the entire country in two papers in English Literature and Sociology, scoring 100 per cent.
Her lowest mark in all other papers was 92 per cent. It says as much about her mental toughness as it does about her academic prowess and I’m very proud of her.