My Dad: The Phone Hacker

This piece has now been published on The Spectator:

This isn’t a redemption story.  I’m not trying to prove my dad’s just a man who made some bad choices, or that he was, ironically, vilified by the press.  Chances are you’ve already made up your own mind about what kind of person Greg Miskiw is, or more than likely you’ve never heard of him at all.

It was pantomime villain Rebekah Brooks who stole the News of the World phone hacking limelight.  Along with David Cameron’s ex-spin doctor Andy Coulson, the high profile pair would deflect the media’s gaze away from the eight other journalists on trial.  Brooks and Coulson may have played starring roles, but it was my dad who pleaded guilty.

The Rottweilers

Greg Miskiw is the archetype of a tabloid journalist.  He’s the one who was once quoted as saying: “This is what we do.  We go out and destroy other people’s lives.” 

He was, and is, a man reminiscent of a simmering pot on the stove, always just on the verge of boiling over.  His dogged determination and refusal to let go of a story once he’d caught its scent is what earned him and fellow NOTW hound Alex Marunchak the epithet “The Rottweilers”.  

The paper wasn’t just his job, it was his life; there was nothing more important to him than getting an exclusive.  Which is why, over the course of several years, he hired private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to listen in on the private messages of thousands of targets and public figures.  He would later be described as the “Kings Cross station” of the hacking scandal, because “everything went through him”.  

On July 4th, 2014, over five years after The Guardian first began writing about the goings on at the NOTW, he was sentenced to six months in prison for unlawfully intercepting voicemails.  And like a Pythian prophecy, lives were destroyed, except as fate would have it, this time it was his own.

The fourth member of our family

Princess Di once famously said: “There were three of us in my marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”  Well, there were four of us in my family: my dad, my mum, me and the News of the World.

The paper was a presence in my daily life even if my dad wasn’t.  It was a Sunday paper, so his hours (or at least the hours he worked) were the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning till late Saturday night.  After a day hunting “exclusives, not excuses” he would resume his regular stance in the nearest Wapping pub, chain smoking Marlboro Reds and knocking back a stream of double Famous Grouses.  By the time he roused himself mid-Sunday morning, he would be so agitated, adrenaline still pumping, the day would be spent trying to avoid setting him off.    

His job dictated nearly every part of our lives.  I knew the phone number for the news desk before I started school and thought “contacts” was another word for “friends”, because my dad had dozens although no-one ever came round for dinner. 

The only party my parents ever threw was on New Year’s Day 1995, which also happened to be the day serial murderer Fred West hung himself.  Nearly everyone at the party was a journalist, so when their phones started ringing the house emptied, leaving my mum with a table full of food and a spotless house she’d spent days cleaning.  

Even on holiday his mobile phone would never stop ringing.  There was always a story in the works, which meant no such thing as time off.  His eye was always on the prize, and there was only one absolute truth: not getting the story was not a possibility. 

An unhappy childhood

Over the years I’ve searched for ways to better understand my dad.  He’s a difficult person to get close to, but with his background that isn’t wholly surprising.

He was born in Chapeltown, Leeds, to Ukrainian immigrant parents.  When Russians invaded my grandpa's village, his mother was shot and died in his arms.  He later joined the Ukrainian faction of the German army on the promise they would fight the communists and not the allies.  

My grandma was taken from her parents aged just seven to work as a “pistunka” for an affluent local family, where she would sit up all night swinging their baby to sleep.  At fourteen, she took her sister’s place to work on a labour farm in Germany.  She never saw her parents again.

My grandparents met in England after the war and, as my grandma described it, wed when my grandpa took hostage a feather duvet she’d had delivered to his house.  “I didn’t have an address of my own at the time,” she told me, “your grandpa had given me his and asked me to write.  I had always wanted a feather duvet, so I ordered one and had it delivered to his house.  When I asked for it he told me I couldn’t have it unless I married him.  I really wanted that duvet.”  

Even this whimsical edit of their early relationship lacks any romance.  The neatly abridged duvet story has its charm, but it’s far more likely things got steamy one night and the result of the union was my dad.  As devout Catholics there was only really one option.  They married, and spent 65 rather unhappy years together until my grandpa died in February 2014.

Ukrainians of their generation aren’t famed for their warmth, and although they weren’t abusive parents, beatings were commonplace.  They’d come from a war-torn, future Soviet country, where Stalin had killed millions of their countrymen as part of a forced famine, now known as Holodomor.  There were stories of people eating their own babies out of madness and starvation.  The regime had intended to eradicate the private lives of its citizens, instead it bred a generation of people left empty, scarred by the atrocities they’d witnessed and suffered. 

Growing up, there were no cuddles or kind words.  His aunt, the only person who ever showed him any affection, died while he was away studying, and nobody told him.  At 19, he launched himself determinedly into the world of journalism, taking with him a fundamental misunderstanding of empathy, a vicarious emotion he’d never been taught.  This lack of empathy did give him a professional edge: it saw him aggressively pursue stories with no conscience about the methods he used to get them and the collateral damage in the process.

He worked his way up the Mirror group ranks until 1987 when he moved to the News of the World, where he began running the news desk in the nineties.  He ran on whiskey and glory, intertwined with an immense, crushing pressure to "get the story".  So he stopped at nothing to make sure that every week there was an exclusive on the front page.

For years he soared above the law, until in 2003 an employment tribunal branded his actions in a clash with crime editor Peter Rose “cavalier and irresponsible”, and he moved to Manchester to oversee the paper’s operations up north.  In 2005, he left the paper that had dominated the last 18 years of his life for good.

The past always catches up

When The Guardian began writing about the widespread phone hacking in 2009 they set in motion a sequence of events that would culminate in my dad’s eventual stint in Belmarsh Prison.  Two years later, in January 2011, The Met launched Operation Weeting, and began investigating the hacking claims from the ground up.  

That summer I was called by a Scotland Yard detective asking if I knew why my name was on one of my dad’s documents from 2001.  I was just 13 in 2001 so he’d probably jotted it down as a reminder for something, but it showed they were leaving no stoned unturned.  Later over a thousand pages of evidence against him would be handed to his lawyer on an innocuous-looking CD. 

He returned from Florida, where he’d been working at supermarket tabloid The Globe and organised an interview with the police a week after he landed.  Following at 12-hour No Comment interview he was charged with conspiracy to intercept voicemails.  Along with fellow hacks Neville Thurlbeck and James Weatherup, he pleaded guilty.  

“The prince of darkness”

It’s a strange thing getting to know your own father through the eyes of other people.  In an ironic twist of fate, he had become the one targeted by the press.  Lots of people were angry, which they had every right to be.  His flagrant disregard for the private lives of other people in order to sell papers isn’t exactly admirable.  

Others jumped at the chance to dissect him.  In his book Hack Attack Nick Davies describes my dad: 

“Miskiw was a News of the World legend, a man who had sacrificed his reputation, his peace of mind and his health to the single glorious goal of living the life of a lad…By 2005, age was catching up with him.  He was fifty-six and looked much older.  He was getting very fat….Worse than that he had been pushed aside…He had been devious, aggressive, secretive to the point of paranoia - and highly successful, although he spent most of the day every day raving with nervous energy, sometimes physically battering his head against the wall, until he got drunk enough to calm down.”

It’s glowing accounts like these that fill in the missing years when he’d been lost to the news room.  For these years I only had my mum’s version, and although I don’t doubt its veracity, there’s no love lost between my parents.  She was thrilled when, in 1999, he moved out to live with a young journalist. One of her favourite jokes is that she’d considered naming the News of the World as correspondent in their divorce papers.   

To this day my relationship with my dad is complicated, but I try to see past the stories and to who he is now.  What he did was wrong and there’s no excusing it, but he’s served his time and life’s too short to live in the past.  

When I look at him I don’t just see the man described by Davies.  I see my dad, who chased glory at any cost but all the success in the world couldn't suffice.  I don’t think he’s ever been happy and, sadly, I don't think he ever will be.  There was a time when he had it all, but his metaphorical whiskey glass was always half empty.

He may have been branded “the prince of darkness", but in recent years the darkness has given way to a faint light.   Without the News of the World, he's had the chance to see what’s really important in life, and for once it wasn’t splashed across the front page of a newspaper. 

Four quick pieces of advice for budding writers

1. It's much harder to write less than more.  Not everything needs to be flowery, sometimes it's much more effective to use simple, direct language.

2. If you're struggling to write, do something else for half an hour and then try again.  Never force it, it doesn't work like that (not so easy when you're on a deadline, but there's always a few minutes for a cup of tea!)

3. A sentence may sound lovely and show off your skills, but if it doesn't fulfil a purpose, cut it.  As Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said: "Murder your darlings". 

And finally,

4. Only write something you'd want to read yourself.  Don't put something out there that you wouldn't find interesting, because chances are no-one else will either.