22 Jul 2011

Pursuing the man who has pursued so many

Washington Correspondent Sarah Smith tells of her pursuit of the former News of the World assistant editor Greg Miskiw – and her experiences of door-stepping the man who ordered so many door-steps.

Greg Miskiw captured on videophoneThere are worse places to be holed up than Delray Beach Florida.

That’s where we found the former News of the World assistant editor Greg Miskiw – a man a lot of people have been looking for ever since the hacking scandal broke.

His apartment is just a couple of blocks from the beach, with palm trees in the garden. The flat above his is available to rent for $1,850.00 if you fancy moving in. The thick heat is oppressive in the middle of July but I bet it’s a wonderful spot in February.

We had a lot of questions for Miskiw when we turned up outside. Hoping that he might agree to a full sit-down interview I had about four pages of questions. Starting with the obvious – did he known about phone hacking at the News of the World when he was the news editor there?

Obviously I would have asked him if his editors – Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – were aware of any illegal activity at News of the World. I wanted him to tell us whose idea it had been to listen to Milly Dowler’s phone messages. And I had a list of detailed questions about whether he asked Glen Mulcaire to gather information on police officers Dave Cook and Jacqui Hames – supplied by the tenacious Andy Davies, who has been hotly pursuing that aspect of the story.

But as we sat in the sweltering Florida heat in a car outside Miskiw’s apartment early on Thursday morning it quickly became obvious that I wouldn’t need all those notes. If I couldn’t even get Miskiw to open his front door then the chances of him inviting us inside to set up our lights and sit down for a formal interview seemed slim.

Admittedly it may have been a bit optimistic to try and get to speak to a freelance journalist at 7am. But Jon Swaine of the Daily Telegraph and his photographer Jane were already parked outside Miskiw’s house when we arrived – already looking very hot.

No matter how many times he or I rang the bell or knocked on the door we couldn’t get any response. I tried shouting through the doors – back and front. If I couldn’t ask my questions in an interview then maybe shouting them through the door would tempt him out to defend himself. But no joy.

We peered through the window blinds to try and work out if Miskiw was inside. We couldn’t decide if a shirt half ironed lying on the ironing board meant that he was definitely inside or definitely had left in a hurry.

I would hate it if reporters were outside my house banging on the door, yelling questions at me and peering in through the windows. But I quickly reminded myself that Greg Miskiw had never had much sympathy for the people he pursued as a journalist. This is the man who once said: “That is what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”

How many times must he have banged on unwelcoming doors? Loitered outside people’s homes? Pursued people down the street?

That’s why we were there. Because this man stands accused of outrageous invasions into people’s privacy. So it was hard to feel too guilty about the fact that we might be waking him up or annoying him. As we got no response we joked about going through his bins. “It’s what he’d want us to do,” quipped the Telegraph.

The problem with television – versus newspapers – is that the process of turning our story into a piece of video tape is terribly time-consuming. And they have not yet developed the technology that allows us to edit on a mobile phone. So, not for the first time in my life, I was forced to leave the scene of a potential story in order to go and edit with what we already had.

Maybe it was because Miskiw had seen our TV camera go that he decided it was safe to leave the house. He hadn’t reckoned on the wit of our producer David Fuller who pulled out his iPhone and filmed the whole scene.

“I’m returning to the UK voluntarily,” Miskiw said as he headed for his car. “My solicitors have been talking to the police for some time now. They know where I am and they know I’m returning. That’s all I have to say.”

Then he drove off in his Saab convertible.

He said he didn’t know whether he’d be arrested when he got back to Britain and he ignored all the questions from Jon Swaine about hacking: who knew what and whose idea it had been to hack Milly Dowler’s voicemail.

It wasn’t the interview we’d come to get but it was something at least. And because David was clever enough to capture the whole encounter on his mobile we were able to broadcast it all on Thursday’s Channel 4 News.

But we really wanted to try to get Miskiw to answer the questions we’d come to ask. So after we’d fed our price to London we went back.

Remembering that this was a man who’d knocked on hundreds of doors in his time I banged again. This time he actually answered the door, but as soon I asked him if he’d speak to us on camera he firmly closed it again.

My last gasp – a letter under his door along with my business card asking him to call if he wanted to do an interview. Sitting outside his house for another few hours I wasn’t optimistic but I did get a call that evening. A brief surge of excitement when I heard: “This is Greg Miskiw”.

But he was calling to repeat that he definitely didn’t want to do an interview. Not now or later, not with us or anyone else.

He wouldn’t say when he was returning to London. He wouldn’t say which lawyers would be representing him when he got there. He wouldn’t say anything about any aspect of the hacking scandal. He was just calling to say that he definitely wasn’t going to say anything. Which was remarkable in itself.

But then, remember, this is a man who for 40 years has been on the other side of story. He is used to pursuing the people at the centre of an ongoing scandal.

Now he himself has become the story, now that he is being subjected to the very kind of press tactics he used to pursue so vigorously I wonder if he has had any second thoughts about how he treated all the people he used to write about.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahsmithC4