A tale of wanton surveillance by the Murdoch empire

‘Hack Attack’, the new book by Nick Davies, is a brilliant account of tabloid power games

Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 01:45

It’s a deeply disturbing and yet at times blackly comical read featuring people that go by names such as the Wolfman, the Corporal, the Ace Trace from Outer Space and Whispering Jimmy. There’s a Rasputin, a Gollum, a Micky the Mouse and a man who likes to tell everyone his nickname is Love Rat, even though it isn’t. “Love Rat”, whose real name is Ian, has a girlfriend he calls Boobs.

Where would one find such characters? In a book about the practices of a newspaper is the sad, sad answer.

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch by Nick Davies, the journalist who did most to expose the criminality and cover-up at the News of the World, is a portrait of power and the “quiet fear” a mogul such as Murdoch instils in the power elite. But as Davies tells this sinister story of corruption, some events also come across as plain pathetic.

Take, for example, the lengths to which Fleet Street’s network of contributors will go for the average showbiz story. At one point Davies notes that the “blagging” target list of private investigator Steve Whittamore included “the owners of every car which was parked near a village green where the actor Hugh Grant was playing cricket”.

“Blagging” means obtaining personal data such as addresses, phone bills, bank statements and health records under false pretences, usually from phone companies, banks and government departments. It has been illegal in the UK since 1994, and although there is an untested public interest defence, it would seem unlikely to apply to motorists who wander into the radius of the star of Notting Hill.

This element of randomness in who became caught up in the tabloid web is disturbing in itself. The phone hacker Glenn Mulcaire had more than 6,000 targets, but 320 of them were “special projects”, meaning the phones of their friends and family were also deemed of interest. This was a system of wanton surveillance, in which targets extended from the 52 families of the victims of the 2005 London bombings to Tessa Jowell, the government minister who had responsibility for the media during a period when her voicemail was intercepted 29 times.

How did it come to pass? Hack Attack goes back to the beginning, linking the economics of neoliberalism in which Murdoch thrived to the emergence of a new culture in his newsrooms. Davies, a freelance reporter working for the Guardian, is blunt about the bullying that lies at the heart of the typical red-top operation.The rot set in, he says, in 1981, when Murdoch appointed a new editor of the Sun.

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