These days, Tom Bradby spends much of his time gossiping with Cabinet ministers. But ITV News’s political editor used to consort with rather more ruthless characters: people whose actions – planting bombs, shooting political rivals at point-blank range – left the reporter “soaked in human misery”.
It was the early 1990s and Bradby, sent by ITN to cover Northern Ireland at the age of just 26, was following the developing peace process. To make sense of it all, Bradby found himself talking to terrorists, intelligence agents, special branch people – and, most rivetingly of all, retired informers: people buried deep inside the IRA who’d been feeding vital information to MI5.
Bradby recalls: “I became fascinated by the relationship between an informer and his or her handler. You’re politically motivated enough to join the IRA and yet you go and work for the British state. How could that happen? And once it does, what an extraordinarily intense and dangerous relationship it must be: both sides know one tiny mistake and this person is going to be tortured, dragged into a ditch and shot.”
That fascination led, in turn, to a bestselling novel by Bradby, which is now a movie for which he has written the screenplay. Shadow Dancer (in cinemas from Friday 24 August) tells the fictional story of an IRA activist, played by Andrea Riseborough, who is forced to betray her terrorist colleagues, including two of her brothers.
It’s an intense thriller that’s less about the Troubles than an examination of the nature of loyalty and the limits of love. Bradby admits he’s deliberately “drained the politics” from the story.
“I did a lot of research about how you run an informer, how you recruit them, why people become informers. The true answer was: ‘take your pick’. A few people did it for the money, some because they’d been passed over for promotion in the IRA, others because their wife was having an affair with somebody else in the IRA.”
From these conversations came the telling details in the movie: the panic button given to informers, the plastic sheeting laid over a carpet before an internal IRA interrogation can begin (for wrapping the dead body of the alleged traitor once he’s been found guilty).
Bradby recalls the relentlessness of “the most insane, utterly random tragedy” visited on the people who he then had to call upon at their most dreadful hour; how, as he got out of his car to meet yet another grieving widow or mother, he’d feel the dread “that once again this wave of human misery is about to wash over me”.
Of course, Bradby moved on from Belfast – most famously as ITV’s royal correspondent. It was during this time that he became friendly with the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Indeed, when William and Kate chose to give an interview to mark their engagement, they requested that Bradby conduct it.
Bring up his friendship with the royals, however, and Bradby sighs. He knows people are fascinated but he’s weary of being pigeon-holed as William’s pal. He remains totally polite but the enthusiasm, so evident before, drains from his voice.
“I don’t want to be an arse about it. I mean, what can I say? I like them both enormously, we get on really well, we see each other from time to time. To be honest with you, I’d be happy if I never talked about the royal family again.”
You may not know it, but the whole phone-hacking crisis – the closure of the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s “most humble day of my life”, the criminal charges against the Prime Minister’s former director of communications, Andy Coulson – was set off by Bradby.
In November 2005, Bradby had called William’s mobile phone and the two of them had spoken about meeting to discuss a project. To the astonishment of both men, details of the meeting appeared in the News of the World. Bradby, embarrassed that the prince might think he was the source of the leak, suggested to him that the royal phone might have been hacked, and encouraged the Palace to go to the police.
“When you’re in a situation where you’ve had a conversation with someone, and it’s confidential and then an aspect of it is splattered all over a newspaper, that is uncomfortable. So that was why I felt it was right to explore what really happened.
“We talked about it and we agreed that there was some potential security implication and it was then up to them to go to the police, as they did. Ultimately, it was that tiny nexus on a trivial, unimportant, irrelevant story that triggered this avalanche.”
Seven years on, the full effects have still not been felt. Interestingly, Bradby seems to have mixed feelings about the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. Though he is careful not to criticise Lord Justice Leveson, he says a strong independent press can be a useful bulwark against too powerful governments.
“A free press is a pretty critical part of the democratic mix and I would feel nervous about that being diluted.” He adds that the hysteria aimed at Rupert Murdoch “reached fever pitch at one point, but do I regret what I did? No, obviously not. I did what I felt was the right thing at the time. I had no idea this was going to happen, and neither did he [Prince William]. Have we both occasionally been quite shocked by the scale of the avalanche? Yeah. Do I occasionally feel uncomfortable about it? Yup. Do I want to go on talking about it? No.”
Shadow Dancers is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 24 August