Phone hacking and the Fifth Beatle


MONDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2017

Last week, George Michael’s family expressed their fury that the 999 call about his death had been leaked to the media. The source of the audio has not been publicly identified, and the latest reports suggest that the Ambulance Service is still investigating the leak.

It brings to mind a similar episode almost 50 years ago. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead at his Belgravia home on August 27, 1967. The inquest later ruled that he had taken an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, but conspiracy theories have flourished – driven by the fact that the press seemed to know about the death before the emergency services.

I’ve spent much of the past year immersed in the published memoirs and unpublished archives of Daily Mirror journalists. And surprisingly, it turns out that the mystery was put to bed as long ago as 2002, in the autobiography of former editor Richard Stott. It provides a glimmer of insight into how calls were being intercepted by the press long before voicemail and mobile phones.

Several band biographies have mentioned the Epstein riddle, including Magical Mystery Tours – a 2005 memoir by the Beatles’ childhood friend Tony Bramwell:

The Daily Express had apparently called out of the blue before anyone else knew that he was dead, to say they had heard that Brian Epstein was seriously ill… Nobody ever owned up to tipping them off.

Philip Norman’s acclaimed Beatles biography Shout! – last updated in 2011 – quotes Joanne Newfield, Epstein’s personal assistant:

At three o’clock, the Daily Express rang up and said, ‘We’ve heard that Brian Epstein’s terribly ill. Is there any truth in it?’ Only the four of us knew that had happened and none of us had contacted the press. It was never explained how the story got out to the papers.

Norman added: “No one has ever… explained the curious fact that Brian’s death was known in Fleet Street less than an hour after Joanne Newfield burst into his darkened room.”

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The late Richard Stott enjoyed a long career at Mirror Group, rising to editor of the Daily Mirror and the People. But in August 1967, he was working for the Ferrari News Agency of South East London, feeding stories to the national press and the capital’s two evening papers.

In his own memoir, Dogs and Lampposts, he devoted half a page to Epstein’s death. He wrote: “Was he murdered? How did reporters get to the scene before the ambulance? Somebody else must have known what was going on… Therefore somebody else must have known he was dead.”

He went on:

It is true that somebody did know of his death even as the first of the Beatles was being told by the butler. It was me.

As part of our listening system we had a number of GPO operators on our books who used to tip us off about news items… When the phone went and it was one of our regular tipsters, I didn’t pay much attention until he asked if I knew Brian Epstein was dead.

The operator, who was on a retainer with the agency, had heard the news while connecting the first, frantic call between Epstein’s butler and one of his assistants.

Knowing that it was the newspaper likely to pay the most for the story, Stott called the Daily Express, which immediately dispatched a reporter to the scene. “Hence the story about the tip-off to the press before anyone else knew,” he wrote. “True, but no murder conspiracy.”

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It’s a reminder that the recent phone-hacking scandal was not Year Zero for the tabloids intercepting telephone calls, or having someone else do the dirty work. Perhaps the greatest difference between then and now is not the ease with which it can be done, but the ease of detection.

Digital systems always leave an audit trail. When voicemail boxes are accessed, there is a record of the number that has made the request. Despite the use of disposable “burner” phones by journalists and private investigators, this information has been crucial in securing convictions.

Along similar lines, it’s likely that a fairly perfunctory forensic analysis could determine where a recording of a 999 call was made. (Though in the case of George Michael, my guess is that the origin of the audio is an open secret in several London newsrooms.)

Back in the Sixties, bribing a telephone operator would leave little evidence. And in the days of the old electro-mechanical Strowger telephone exchanges, a corrupt engineer could easily attach a few crocodile clips at the appropriate place and listen in to any conversation on a subscriber line. Unless caught in the act, he’d almost certainly get away with it.

So how common was the practice? Did the papers and press agencies have a whole division of Post Office Telephones staff on their books? That’s one that can only be answered by the veteran tabloid operatives who were there, and whose ranks are now thinning precipitously. The pre-history of phone hacking is yet another topic that awaits its historian.

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