Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Monday 25 May 2015

The most interesting man you don't know.

The name of Neville Thurlbeck is one that strikes fear into the heart of most journalists.

To know Neville was on the same job, booked into the same hotel or trying for the same interview was like receiving a death sentence: he never failed, so you were going to.

But it's a name with little resonance for anyone else. It's just a byline, someone who sounds underwhelming. Perhaps that's why on the front cover of his new book Neville's name is in smaller print than the title, the graphics, and the name of his former employer - the News of the World.

On Fleet Street Neville is renowned for a dress sense that involves tweed and leather elbow patches, for a catalogue of jaw-dropping exclusives from Rebecca Loos to Max Mosley and Jeffrey Archer... and for being the journalist who detonated an atomic bomb under the phone hacking scandal.

It was Neville who tasked the paper's private detective Glenn Mulcaire with investigating Milly Dowler when the schoolgirl went missing in 2002.

That led to the voicemail interception which, when discovered and reported by The Guardian almost a decade later, turned a media scandal into an international corporate disaster and led in a few days to the closure of the most successful newspaper in the English-speaking world.

In his book Neville issues an unreserved apology to all affected by his decision. But if you want any more detail about that, his six month jail sentence or the five weeks he served in a cell alongside Andy Coulson, his former editor and long-time friend, you won't find it.

This is a memoir of a 30-year career, and as such its 321 pages are an edited, pared-down description of how Neville broke some of the biggest stories in living memory.

For anyone wondering how journalists get their stories when they're not phone hacking, it's a revelation. The lengths you have to go to get a hidden camera in the right place in an orgy, the problem with refusing to pay the friendly hooker what she was expecting, and how to find documentary evidence of who owns the phone that's sending Rebecca Loos dirty text messages.

There's a lot on Neville's humble north east beginnings, his work ethic, his first job as a teacher in Africa, before he gets to the Harrow Observer and works his way on to Fleet Street. There's a few tantalising snippets about unnamed politicians and the stories that got away, and how he began working as an informant for the police and security services. And there's a great deal of affection for a career which Neville obviously loved.

It's the book of how Neville would like to be remembered - as he says at the beginning, if no-one else likes it at least it will be something for his children to read.

But every newspaper story has material that didn't make the cut. Lawyers and editors take chunks out, The Reader is judged uninterested in other parts, and the pressure of space means you've got room only to tell the best bits.

In that, Neville's book is just like every story the News of the World ever published, back in the days when everyone bought it, few people liked to admit it, and the great and good prayed every Saturday night that they weren't in it.

After you've read it, you can't help wondering what else Neville's got up his sleeve.

* Neville's book, Tabloid Secrets, is published by Biteback for £11.99 and available in all good bookshops. It's also an ebook. Follow Nev on Twitter here: @nthurlbeck