Garbology and me: John Ford on the dark art of 'bin-spinning'
FOR the boss of Britain’s most respected newspaper investigations team, the Editor of Insight was a man of nervous disposition.
Receiving a phone call where a particularly black op was being discussed he would whisper down the phone, as if, in our world of spies and eavesdroppers, that offered any protection.
"Is, er, George around," he’d murmur. "We have a new place for him to visit."
Then the phone would be passed to Insight's most junior member, whom I referred to as the team's John Noakes, because, like that much put upon Blue Peter presenter of yesteryear, he always ended up with the shittiest end of the Insight stick.
Behind his back, the Editor was known as 'Sweaty’ - a direct reference to his apocrine glands, and their copious outpourings when stimulated by the prospect of another nefarious operation.
Between Sweaty at the top and Noakes at the bottom of The Sunday Times’s investigative sandwich was a deputy editor I’m going to call Barrow Boy, on account of his proletariat mode of speech.
Despite enjoying a suitably privileged upper-middle-class background for a Sunday Times staffer, Barrow Boy had suffered the horrors of a UK comprehensive education in the early 80s.
And it showed in his vowels, which jarred among the plummy public school chatter of The Sunday Times newsroom.
A call from Barrow Boy would never be in a whisper but was always conspiratorial. Another of his nicknames was 'Left Field' – which I considered an apposite descriptor, given his dyslexia and ability to reach beyond the more Oxbridge mind-set of his colleagues.
Barrow Boy would come on with Mephistophelean zeal. "We've got a good one – a really good one,” he’d enthuse.
“Noakes has checked it out (meaning he’d curb-crawled the Minister’s address in Insight’s hired grey Ford Granada, looking like some low-rent Reservoir Dog) and it's well doable, apparently."
Easy for you to say.
Despite its reputation as a crack investigative team, ensuring security - mine, specifically - was always a frustration when dealing with Insight.
The introduction of untraceable pay-as-you-go 'Bat-phones' helped a bit, but discipline was weak and most conversations were over open lines.
Attempts to use an encrypted email service such as Hushmail, were used for a week or two before things generally reverted to open email and comms, through a combination of forgetfulness, and urgency.
You see, the paper’s greed for the next headline was insatiable - and I was its golden goose.
On some level I admit I felt honoured to be the focus of so much influential attention. But I was living my life with constant trepidation bubbling just below the surface. I just quietened it away with wine, weed, and Valium.
Still, I was heading up Operation George – The Sunday Times’s in-house programme of surveillance on the Blair Government, by way of that most revealing of conduits: its household trash.
Some call it garbology, others bin-spinning, but the Editor of Insight called the highly illegal practise of raiding the black bags of powerful people something else - a potential front page story.
The first step in any bin-spin was always painless: a simple call to the local council - posing dumbly as a new resident of ‘Acacia Avenue’ - whose refuse department would helpfully explain when and where bins should be put out in their borough.
Step two was to hop on my bicycle for a ride by the property to try and determine where the wheelie bins lived, and see whether it really was in fact a 'goer', as Noakes had breathlessly suggested.
Principle among my observations would be a scan for CCTV (Lord Levi’s house, for example, had more cameras than GCHQ and so received a wide berth), followed by a clear mapping out of escape routes, in the event that things didn’t go exactly to plan.
Step three was the scary part; the part when no amount of Valium would calm the nerves and the idea of going to bed early in the anticipation of a bit of sleep was as wishful as it was laughable.
It’s very difficult to describe the sensation in my lower intestines (except perhaps an equivalency to necking a mouthful of drain cleaner) as I got up at the crack of sparrow’s fart and hit the road in search of garbage gold, safe in the knowledge that if I screwed up and actually got caught I would be up to my neck in it without back up from my taskmasters at The Sunday Times.
But then for me, that breakfast of adrenaline and dopamine - served with a side of prospective journalistic glory - was the hook. The deniability of the operation only served to heighten the high. You can call me crazy - and I guess by most standards I probably was.
Summer spinning was always easier as the early morning light gave greater visibility. Yet winter spinning's darkness had its advantages too.
A Maglite torch clamped between front teeth was a useful stealth tool, as often bags had to be torn open a little in situ to guarantee they belonged to the target, and not some unfortunate neighbour.
The usual modus operandi was to grab some full rubbish sacks from any household, carry them to the target residence and swap like-for-like.
The idea was that any target's suspicions that their bins were empty before the refuse collectors had arrived, could be allayed.
It was a bit like that scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones swaps the golden skull for a bag of sand, only with the threat of finding Scotland Yard’s finest at my heels, instead of an enormous rolling ball of rock.
The secret to success was to appear calm and purposeful, despite the anxiety billowing in the stomach.
Costume gave some cover, and any vehicle needed to be parked well out of range, else its registration could be identified - and disaster invited.
Then followed the switch, the grab, and the walk of (controlled) fear back to the boot of the car, where the bins were deposited. And then I was off.
The police only ever stopped me once. It was a routine, random, road check. They looked over my vehicle, asked all the usual questions, and then threw in “what's in the boot?”
“Just a load of rubbish,” I replied, honestly, heart missing a beat. Mercifully satisfied, the officers sent me on my way.
Then came The Sift. At the time I lived in a former warehouse with a large area to empty out the sacks, put on gloves and wade my way past the yoghurt pots, spoiled dinners and general detritus in search of paperwork gold.
Anything paper was precious: a memo, a copy of a doctor's prescription, a discarded letter or email.
The actual rubbish was then placed in another bag and sent off for disposal. If there was any gold then a call went through to Insight and a meeting was arranged for the hand-over.
It wasn't all plain sailing.
There were wasted journeys, last-minute decisions to walk away because of perceived ambient dangers.
The worst was dealing with a heavy smoker's bins. What we learned from Sir Eddie George was that he did not throw away confidential documents, but he did get through industrial quantities of cigarettes while, presumably, agonising over the economy.
It all went well, for a while. And then working with Insight began to feel like eating chocolate - the first few bites were delicious, but it was never long before the feeling of sickness came in waves.
The whole process was emotionally draining. Lack of sleep compounded the paranoia and continual whirring anxiety.
It was a thrill while it was good, but by the end it was a busted flush.
Sweaty's addiction to the front page meant he was always reaching further and further for the scoop. Many of our stories got there on merit, even if their origins did not.
But standards started to slip. On one occasion he published the personal domestic jottings - reconstructed from a torn up notepad - of Tony Blair's lieutenant Jonathan Powell, supposedly in the 'Public Interest'.
And suddenly, metaphorically - nigh on literally - the writing was on the wall for Operation George.
Every day that passed I found myself regretting never having done a plumbing HND, so that I might hop on a plane to New Zealand and start again.
At least then I would have been able to wash away the shit from my conscience. I still wonder how my old bosses at The Sunday Times live with theirs.