In an anonymous but well-fortified lean-to somewhere down a back alley in South London, Graham Johnson is deep in conversation with a man he describes as a “local warlord”. Johnson is a usually a talkative Scouser, but at the moment he’s letting the physically imposing figure who greeted me with a finger-crushing handshake hold court. Johnson explained earlier that the guy’s business is “protection, in the nicest possible way.” He rarely grants this sort of audience. He’s a busy man. Wholesale drug dealers and fraudsters pay him insurance money, and in return they can operate safe in the knowledge that they’re protected against theft by other gangs. Above the gangster’s desk are pinned remembrance cards from the funerals of a host of London underworld figures, and under the watchful eyes of Ronnie Biggs he’s currently telling a wildly entertaining story about the time he extorted compensation money for a drug dealer who’d be dobbed in to the police by a family member. He’d made sure the snitch paid the dealer’s family £20,000 “plus a Big Mac” for him. The deal almost went south when they forget to bring him his Big Mac. In short, Guy Ritchie would cast this guy without a second’s hesitation.
For Johnson, this is just another day at the coal face. One of Britain’s finest investigative journalists, his career relies on the fact that he’s trusted by newspaper editors and criminals alike. He needs underworld figures to be able to open up to him, and more often than not they do. “People like to talk,” Johnson tells me later. “Most of them don’t want to be criminals. Crime is all about capitalism. All the criminals we met today, and 99% of the ones you’ll ever meet, all consider themselves just another part of the economy. There’s the Canary Wharf economy, and there’s organised crime. These guys all consider themselves to be at the extreme end of capitalism. They don’t think they’re any different to the rogue traders in Canary Wharf.”
Now 45, Johnson started his career at local paper Falmouth Packet before moving to the South West News Service. Since then he’s spent 20 years writing for tabloids, starting with the News of the World. He moved to the Sunday Mirror in 1997 and spent six years as the paper’s Investigations Editor before leaving in 2005. He’s been freelance since. Nowadays his work usually appears in The Sun, on Panorama or in documentaries for Vice like ‘Fraud’, ‘The Debt Collector’ and ‘How To Get Away With Stealing’. He’s also written a shelf-load of fiction and non-fiction books, including ‘Powder Wars’, ‘Druglord’ and ‘Hack’.
In 20 years he’s only had one contract taken out on him, which seems like pretty good going, and a testament to his conciliatory skills. “It was for £100,000,” remembers Johnson. “I’d written a series of articles and a couple of books [including ‘Druglord’] about a villain called John Haase. He ended up going back to prison for 22 years, and he put the contract out on me. My reporting put him away, end of story, and smashed his little firm to bits. But that’s quite rare. Usually I try to do things by negotiation and compromise.” It was for his reporting on Haase that Johnson was described in Parliament as an “investigative reporter supreme”.
Having been in the thick of the tabloid scrum for the last two decades, Johnson couldn’t be less surprised by their current travails. He knows firsthand how poisonous their working environment has been to any noble concept of what journalism could be. “I think Leveson is great,” he says. “Newspapers were a cartel. Instead of selling drugs they sold stupid stories. In the race to get ever stupider stories, they started to do evil things. It was a corrupt corporate culture based on bullying, and that only has a finite life. You know it’s going to go tits up. Me and [his partner] Emma were both sacked by Rebekah Brooks. We knew they were all gangsters because we used to work for them.”
He looks back with regret at what his time at the News of the World made of him. “Being binned by the News of the World was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because otherwise I would be in the dock now. I may still end up in the dock. I’ve done some terrible things. I was a member of the tabloid einsatzgruppen. I was a member of a Nazi Death Squad, and when I came to your village everyone there was getting metaphorically wiped out: men, women and children, by my little firm. I didn’t care because I had no conscience.”
After moving to the Sunday Mirror, Johnson was again forced to watch as a once-proud investigative paper was thoroughly declawed. “Working on newspapers, you come to learn why tabloids are so great. You learn what you need in the mix. You need some showbiz stories, you need some crime stories, you need some human interest stories and some politics. You need your John Pilger and all that.” Then at the Sunday Mirror we dealt with editors who started to say: ‘We don’t want any of that. All we want is celebrity stories. We’re going to bet the farm on Big Brother’, and they did. Sales went down. The editors would say: ‘Listen, this is not because we’ve made bad editorial decisions.’ This is not because we put a lottery winner on the front of the paper. This is because B&Q is open on a Sunday, so people are going to B&Q instead of buying the paper. Then when the internet came along, it was: ‘Oh, we’ll blame it on the internet.’ They got more and more desperate and it got deeper and deeper.’”
Johnson blames privately-educated editors for losing touch with their own readers. “They’re out of touch and then they all feed off each other. Tina Weaver used to go to the Labour Party conference. I was there for 10 years and she never mentioned the Labour Party. She never mentioned socialism. She never mentioned pay and conditions. And this is from The Mirror, the ‘left-leaning’ tabloid. I knew the whole Labour thing was a fraud from the inside. Once a year, to make it look like it wasn’t a fraud, Tina Weaver would get in a Merc and get chauffer driven to the party conference to meet other privately educated leaders. It was all a fraud.”
You can’t have legions of privately educated people running a newspaper,” he continues. You need a good mix. That’s your readers. But listen, I’ve got nothing against privately educated people. Like it says in this book, if you’ve got the money then you should spend lavishly on it…” At this point he reaches into a wide pocket on the front of his rain jacket where I’d seen his stash his notepad along with a well-worn book with its cover missing. He throws the book down on the table. It is Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’.
In 2005, Johnson had a nervous breakdown and left the Sunday Mirror. It took him two years to return properly to journalism, and in that time he sought solace and direction in studying philosophy. “I got into the stoics and the ‘Meditations’,” he says. “That’s why I always have a copy of that. You need it, honestly. When you’re a crime reporter you need it because all day you’re surrounded by people telling stories like the warlord we met earlier. He’s not evil, but he’s capable of evil things. You meet a lot worse than him, so you need to get your head together. I use that. I always carry that. I read it in my downtime. I had a nervous breakdown because I just told so many lies. When you’re in the tabloids you’re just telling lies to everyone. You’re telling lies to your readers, your contacts, everyone.”
Now that he’s out of the newsroom and working to his own rhythms, Johnson can see that the tabloid environment pushed him towards that inevitable breakdown. “When I started out on the NCTJ I was a pretty bad reporter,” he says. “Well, I was a good reporter, but I played fast and loose with the code. I didn’t really care about the journalism. It was just about stories and ambition. I was corrupt. All I wanted to be was a Fleet Street hotshot. I went to work at the News of the World, and that’s great if you’re corrupt, because they’re corrupt as well.”
Today, Johnson is an advocate for a different kind of journalism. The kind that’s disappearing from newsrooms. “After I left the News Of The World I decided to be the best reporter I could, and play it straight. Now I consider myself a reasonably good reporter. I don’t break the law. I don’t fabricate any stories at all, yet we get big world exclusives week-in, week-out. We deliver. We don’t use Google and all that crap. We don’t get stories off the internet. It’s just banging doors and running round. Half the fucking reporters at the Mirror won’t come out of the office. On top of their office is a bank, underneath is bank: they think they work in a bank. They think getting stories is like trading in credit default swaps or something. They think you don’t have to leave the office to do it. They’ve lost all connection with their readership. That’s why traditional newspapers have been going down for many years. The phone-hacking thing has just demoralised their confidence further, but the truth is you can’t get stories off Twitter, or fucking Facebook, or however people do it. You’ve got to go out and get stories.”