By Eric Allison, Sunday 10 July 2011 18.30 BST
I have personal experience of the News of the World’s blatant disregard for the truth in the pursuit of a good headline. That experience pales into insignificance when put next to the trauma endured by the innocent victims of the phone-hacking exercises. But my tale may throw some light on just how long the disregard of the truth has been the norm at that newspaper.
Some 20 years ago I was on the receiving end of a classic sting operated by the News of the World. It went stunningly well for them as I was arrested, on camera, handing over a stash of blank passports to their reporter, who was posing as a member of a London crime family.
The reporter had skilfully duped me into believing the passports were going to a Hong Kong syndicate, at a time when the island was about to be handed over to the Chinese and people wanted to get away before the regime change.
I was nicked and the story made the front page. Slightly embarrassing for me – a seasoned criminal being had over by a tabloid – but something of a fair cop nonetheless. Until, that is, I saw the headline: “We smash plot to supply IRA killers with fake passports”
IRA killers? I had seen the guy who the reporter had arrived with and he certainly looked Chinese. Where had the link with Irish terrorists sprung from? The answer emerged over the next few weeks during my weekly appearances at Bow Street magistrates’ court. It was a long and tangled tale.
The News of the World had been approached by a guy who was on the run from jail, Paul Thompson. Thompson had been introduced to me by an associate of long standing, who thought he knew him well. Thompson said the Chinese people wanted passports, he knew I could supply them. So far, so straightforward. But Thompson had approached the News of the World under the misguided belief the paper would square his problems with the authorities and pay him for his trouble, if he got me – and others – nicked (how far his handlers at the paper encouraged him in this belief is a matter of conjecture). Somewhere along the line Thompson – a fantasist, it would emerge – invented a connection with the IRA. It was far-fetched, but his handlers swallowed the story and the terrorist headline was born.
A month later, at Bow Street and at the behest of my solicitor, the prosecution admitted in open court that “there is no terrorist element in this case, it is a straightforward criminal enterprise”. A reporter from the News of the World was present at the time and recorded the admission. Despite this, a month later – in a splash outlining their successes in the previous year – the paper declared that “in December we smashed a plot to supply IRA killers with fake passports”.
From my cell in Wormwood Scrubs I complained about this deliberate manipulation of the truth. In a letter to my solicitor, the offending editor declared that “Allison would have supplied passports to anyone, including terrorists”.
I would not have done, as it happens; I had strong views about the mess that was, then, Northern Ireland, but would never have tried to profit from that mess. But when you are of “bad character” – as I was – you cannot easily sue a paper for saying you are worse than you are. At trial at the Old Bailey later that year, Thompson, informer and fantasist, got seven years for perverting the course of justice. I got a very respectable 18 months, for supplying Thompson with one passport. A result, as they say.
But the News of the World had not finished with me. In 2003, when I was going straight and the Guardian had appointed me as their prisons correspondent, the Sunday paper had this to say:
A CROOK who was jailed after the News of the World exposed his role in a plot to supply passports for terrorists has been handed a job as a columnist by lefties’ bible The Guardian.
Eric Allison 60, was caged for 18 months in the 1990s after we unmasked him as a major player in a plan to supply the documents to the IRA.
Now he is cashing in on his past, by writing for the newspaper as part of his campaign to give inmates a cushy time behind bars.