Death of UK phone-hacking whistleblower mourned

Updated: 2011-07-19 21:42

By Cecily Liu (

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LONDON - The death of a 47-year-old former News of the World journalist made the biggest headlines across the British press on Monday. His former editor, meanwhile, who first cultivated the young talent is in quiet mourning.

Sean Hoare, who made phone hacking allegations against his former newspaper News of the World, was found dead at his home in Watford, north London, one day before the scandal was debated in the UK Parliament.

His allegations, published by The New York Times last September and subsequently in The Guardian, triggered the unfolding phone-hacking crisis, leading to the closing down of the Sunday tabloid News of the World, which then had a circulation of 7.5 million.

“I turned on the tele this evening, and at first there was no sound. But I recognised Sean straight away. I was stunned”, said Charlie Harris, Vice-President of The Chartered Institute of Journalists, who worked with Hoare at the British local paper Watford Free Observer in the 1980s.

Being ten years Hoare’s senior, Harris well remembers the bright, aspirational young man Hoare once was. “Sean was a natural reporter, a man with an unerring nose for a story who loved sniffing one out, and a journalistic character of the old school, despite his relative youth.”

Back at the Watford Free Observer, Harris - the deputy-editor - and Sean the reporter sat opposite each other for about four years. “My view was obscured by a constant fug of smoke and a pile of cigarette ends over-spilling from a giant ashtray that sat between us on the news desk.”

For Harris, Sean was instantly likeable. “Always smartly dressed, with Brylcreemed hair that gave him an appearance of having arrived from a slightly earlier age, he never wore socks.”

In terms of traditional office rules Hoare was not the most reliable of men. He was not a good timekeeper and would regularly vanish from the building for long periods, rarely telling his editor where he was going. "I'm just going for a mooch around town," he would say, as he left in a cloud of smoke, and his colleagues never knew quite when they'd see him again.

“But in one way he was 100 percent reliable: he'd always come back with a notebook full of good, often offbeat, stories. His natural charm made it easy for him to make and maintain contacts from all walks of life.” His colleagues were all deeply impressed.

But the hard work does not stop there. Returning to the office after a long day of story hunting, he'd get a mug of coffee, light up another cigarette, and knock out his copy at great speed - before heading off to find more stories.

“We all knew that local newspapers would not hold Sean for long. He was always meant for bigger things and he never made a secret of the fact that his heart was set on joining a national tabloid, which was his natural habitat,” said Harris.

He eventually achieved that ambition, transferring to The Sun, and then becoming the showbiz correspondent at News of the World.

For a while he lived what he was happy to call a privileged life. "I was paid to go out and take drugs with rock stars – get drunk with them, take pills with them, take cocaine with them," Hoare told The Guardian, a British paper which played a major role in unveiling the latest updates of the hacking scandal last week.

“It was so competitive. You are going to go beyond the call of duty. You are going to do things that no sane man would do. You're in a machine," he added.

As Hoare moved further into the national press spotlight, Harris lost touch with him, hearing news of his achievements only from mutual friends and colleagues.

After a while he dropped out of Harris’ sight completely until one day in Dublin last September Harris sat in a bar with a pint of Guinness and opened the only English newspaper he could find in the nearby newsagent's - The Guardian.

There, tucked away at the bottom of an inside page, was a piece about the interview with the New York Times in which he had claimed that Andy Coulson, under whose editorship at News of the World Hoare had worked until being sacked, had commissioned unethical and illegal practices.

According to Harris, none of Hoare’s former colleagues could have guessed what the claims would lead to - the closure of the Sunday paper, the arrests of a series of very senior journalists, the resignation of the UK's most senior policeman and one of his colleagues, emergency debates in Parliament and both the Murdoch media empire and the British Government being rocked to their foundations.

But Hoare is also a victim of the competitive press world represented by his paper. Alcohol and drugs took away his health, and his job also. When he first made the allegations, many commentators believed that he was lying to revenge the paper that sacked him, but Harris believes otherwise.

“Judging from his character, he would not make such serious allegations just to get back on people he doesn’t like. The unveiling scandal since then has proved that he was telling the truth.”

Hoare’s death is currently being treated as unexplained but not thought to be suspicious. Police investigations into this incident are ongoing.

Meanwhile, Harris moved on also. He reported for local newspapers in north London, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire for 33 years and edited the Harrow Times Series from 1997 to 2006.

Extensive knowledge of local reporting has made him a respected figure in his area, and the ideal candidate to chair a range of events, including local election hustings.

After retiring from reporting he dedicated himself to teaching classes for the vocational training program The National Council for the Training of Journalists, passing his wisdom on to future journalists.

But time and different career pursuits cannot diminish Harris’ regards of his former colleague. Shocked and grieved, he said that the death of Sean Hoare, who is being dubbed the "News of the World whistleblower", is not only a tragedy for his family and friends, but for journalism.

Zhang Haizhou contributed to the story