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This article was first published in the November 2023 print edition of Byline Times
A series of anonymous emails blowing the whistle on payments by The Sun to the partner of a senior royal aide were written by three former colleagues of the controversial journalist Dan Wootton, a Byline Times investigation can reveal
This newspaper has received credible intelligence to suggest the three worked together to inform on the Murdoch tabloid’s former executive editor as they feared a cover-up by publisher News UK if they did not.
To protect themselves from exposure, the colleagues went to extraordinary lengths to cover their tracks, after reaching out to Scotland Yard, Buckingham Palace lawyers, and retired Guardian journalist Nick Davies.
Byline Times will not be identifying them as a matter of journalistic source protection. However, it can reveal how they presented themselves as being a temporary worker and a friend of a junior News UK administrator with access to The Sun’s editorial payment systems.
They acted following the publication of two stories about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their son Archie in June and July 2019, and the subsequent discovery of payments totalling £4,000 to a publicist whose partner is Prince William’s former press officer Christian Jones.
For the first time, this newspaper is reproducing some of the emails’ content. Part of them reads: “If a journalist is using someone’s [partner] to pay Prince William’s PR for information about his own brother and sister-in-law that shouldn’t happen.”
They add: “Someone in editorial started questioning why stories that weren’t on the front page were getting thousands of pounds in fees. My friend says someone saw a string of payments within a few weeks to [the publicist, Jones’ partner] about royals and then asked who this person was. They couldn’t understand why a showbiz PR would have that kind of knowledge.”
The insider information was later handed to Neil Basu, the former Met Police Assistant Commissioner overseeing counter-terrorism at the time, and led to two internal inquiries at Buckingham Palace.
News UK denies making any unlawful payments to third parties, and Jones and his partner say they did not provide private information about the Sussexes to The Sun.
Byline Times has sourced its own copies of the emails, which were first addressed to Nick Davies in spring 2020.
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Davies – whose investigations for the Guardian exposed the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, leading to that newspaper’s closure in 2011 and a major Old Bailey trial – confirmed his role in passing on the anonymous communications to relevant third-parties.
“I am retired, but I still get approached with stories two or three times a week and have to say no to them,” he said. “But this email was clearly important. There was a clear public interest if there had been misfeasance by a public official. It was important and there was clearly a chance that what was being said was true. So I boosted it into the hands of people with power.”
First, Davies reached out to lawyers for the Duke of Sussex, who also passed the information on to Neil Basu.
“I was in the middle, and I admitted I had no idea if what the email said was true,” Davies added. “It was detailed information, but the truth was not clear. The police needed some kind of evidence to put before a judge to get a warrant to go to Buckingham Palace and search Christian Jones’ records and those at The Sun. They needed to meet the source to get a sworn statement or some other form of sworn evidence. I urged them [the anonymous whistleblower] to meet the police, who were willing to do so off-the-record, but the source would not come forward.”
The information in the emails was so detailed and credible, however, that it prompted the Duke of Sussex to explore a civil lawsuit with a formal ‘letter before action’ to The Sun. The information they contained centred on the appropriateness of payments going to the partner of someone acting in an official capacity for the Royal Family.
Byline Times can reproduce parts of the emails which went on to have such wide-reaching ramifications.
Posing as The Sun worker’s friend, the authors wrote to Davies: “I understand you are now retired from journalism. Perhaps if this is not of interest to you directly, you might wish to pass it on to someone capable if you think it worthwhile. I have no wish to be involved because I would fear for the safety and wellbeing of my loved ones. You played a pivotal role in exposing wrongdoing at News International. The company, now News UK, claims to be the cleanest media company in the world. It is not. I will give you one example. See where it leads.”
The emails claimed to be from a News UK worker who, during a brief period of employment there, had access to payment systems used by editorial teams and had knowledge of internal legal compliance protocols. The worker, it was claimed, had maintained a friendship with a second whistleblower at the tabloid.
One email went on: “Everyone there now has to undergo strict training to avoid corrupt payments, but at The Sun they are circumventing this. I know this because there is one case involving one of the top editors, Dan Wootton, that has been hushed up.”
The email continued: “The impression my friend gave is that only a few people within The Sun know about it. They’ve told me before that when the connection was made between [Christian Jones’ partner, the publicist] and Jones there was a real sense of panic because Wootton is so powerful within that office.
“He deals directly with [chief executive] Rebekah Brooks on stories sometimes, he has his own radio show, and he’s forced out a lot of people as he’s moved up through the organisation. He’s tried and succeeded to get people sacked. He’s that powerful.”
Explaining the situation, the emails continue: “[Dan Wootton] is a showbiz journalist, but in the last year or so, if you check you will see he has written a number of stories about the Royal Family. There were concerns raised internally last year over a number of payments he had made, totalling thousands of pounds, to a freelance PR.
“If you look on Google, [the publicist] worked for a number of showbiz PR firms, so perhaps not a big deal. The reason concerns were flagged was because Wootton suddenly began paying [the publicist] thousands of pounds … for royal stories, starting on or around 15 July last year (2019).”
It went on: “These began with large payments of £3,000 upwards for single stories about the Duchess of Sussex that only someone very close to them could know about. The information was very detailed and questions were asked very discreetly internally about why the amounts paid were suddenly so high about stories possibly involving public officials (which is a big red flag at News UK now).
“The answer, it was quickly established, was that [the publicist] is the partner of William and Kate’s press secretary, Christian Jones.”
The email went on: “By the company’s own updated rules, any suspicion of a payment to a public official should be flagged up immediately to lawyers. The reason I’m contacting you is that this didn’t happen. I have no reason why although given the seniority of the journalist and the panic it would cause internally, perhaps that is sufficient explanation.
“Only a handful of people had direct knowledge of it and I’m not sure Dan Wootton was even confronted about it. I don’t know the journalists personally but it really angers me that good people, secretaries even, lost jobs on the News of the World and here we are again possibly and it has not even been looked into.”
The emails go on: “After I left I heard someone involved was so angry they had emailed a Mr Basu at Scotland Yard last December about it and possibly even a royal servant called Tyrrell [Gerrard Tyrrell, the Royal Family’s lawyer] to tip them off.
“All I know is [the publicist] is on The Sun’s payment system under a ZC (contributor) number paid lots of money by Dan Wootton, I know that much. The paper trail is there if someone wants to find it. It seems rotten to me. I hope this is of interest.”
In a subsequent email, the whistleblowers confirmed the detail of [the publicist’s] contributor code: “I think [the publicist’s] ZC number is ZC634*** [Byline Times’ redaction]. My friend thinks there was a payment for £3,000 made around the 15 July last year for a story about the Duchess of Sussex and her nannies which was published on 28 June. There was also a payment of £1,000 made for a story about godparents to Meghan’s son. I don’t have any more details and I don’t know if I can get any more without arousing suspicion for my friend.”
The informants went on to talk about internal compliance policies intended to protect News UK from Operation Elveden-type scandals and bribery allegations.
Since Elveden, which closed down in 2016, News UK has upgraded its internal compliance systems to flag suspicious payments to serving public officials with a self-certifying system based around e-learning modules.
The email added: “This is used for every new contributor the company pays like a source. It’s a single sheet and has a box on it which asks the journalist to tick yes/no whether the person is a public official.”
Byline Times understands that the New York HQ of parent company News Corporation could be alerted to red flags. It followed the creation in 2011 of a management standards committee, one of whose first jobs was to assist UK police and act as ‘assisting suspects’ in the Elveden probe, and hand over evidence against employees in order to avoid corporate charges, which could have infringed the US Federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act with the potential to impact directly on owner Rupert Murdoch.
The email went on: “People internally on editorial … started getting suspicious about the scale of the payments made by Wootton, looked at it, someone did some research and found the connection between Jones and [his partner], presented it to the same senior execs, who then recoiled in horror at what had been found and stuck their heads in the sand without taking it further.”
It added: “Basically [they] said, yep, anyway, let’s move on, it’s a great story by Dan. I don’t think there’s any desire to push for it to be investigated. I think the view internally is to let sleeping dogs lie and hope no one ever makes the connection independently.”
Byline Times put a series of detailed questions to a lawyer for the Royal Family, a spokesperson for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Dan Wootton, Christian Jones, Jones’ partner, and Simon Case.
The allegations about payments were put to News UK in 2020, when Byline Investigates, the sister website of Byline Times, first revealed payments were made. News UK threatened to sue in order to stifle publication. The identities of the senior executives said to have known about the connection between Christian Jones and his partner are not known and the extent that News UK management know that this happened, if at all, is unclear.
Dan Evans and Tom Latchem are former colleagues of Dan Wootton’s from the News of the World between 2007 and 2011. None of the sources or analysts cited either in this story or wider investigation were paid