Stories in this book make the reader take a sharp intake of breath. Stories of tabloid excess, of bribery and hacking, of bullying and illegality. One of them neatly sums up the relationship that News International and its newspapers, especially the Sun and News of the World, had with power.
When Gordon Brown was prime minister of Britain he gave Rebekah Brooks, then chief executive of News International, the use of Chequers, the country house that came with his job, for an "all-girls" pyjama party and sleepover to celebrate Brooks's 40th birthday. That is an abuse of privilege in itself. It also indicates a relationship between a prime minister and a media company that was far too cosy.
Only a few years earlier, the Sun, which Brooks then edited, contacted Brown to say it was about to publish confidential medical details showing that Brown’s
four-month-old son, Fraser, had cystic fibrosis. Brown and his wife, Sarah, pleaded with Brooks not to publish. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition, so children from both sides of the family had to be tested, and this had not yet happened.
Brown was furious. He decided to take control of the story and issue a statement to all media. Brooks contacted Brown and warned him against ruining the Sun’s exclusive.
The compromise was that Brown’s statement would go out late, allowing the
Sun to do a mock-up of its front page for the late-night television programmes that review the next morning’s newspapers, so it would appear that only the Sun had the story.
Later we discover that Brown was one of the people whose phones were hacked, but we never find out how the Sun got access to confidential medical records.
Brown was uneasy with News International, but he understood that he needed it onside and did everything he could to keep its newspapers as allies. But even as Brown was lending Brooks his residence, and attending her lakeside wedding, she had turned her affections, and those of News International, towards the man who would replace him, David Cameron, who is said to have signed notes to her, "Love, Dave".
Hack Attack is two stories, and nearly two books, in one. The first is an account of Nick Davies’s six-year investigation unravelling the story that became the phone-hacking scandal. The second is about unaccountable power distorting democracy and the media’s relationship with it.
The story begins with the arrest in August 2006 of two men, the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire. Between them they hacked the royal household, with the full support of the News of the World's editor, Andy Coulson (who would go on to become Cameron's director of communications in Downing Street). Unfortunately for Goodman, one story could have come only from a phone hack, and he and Mulcaire were arrested. They pleaded guilty, and so the story of the rogue reporter was invented.
Davies, who reports for the Guardian newspaper, did not hold with the single-rogue-reporter story, and so began an investigation that slowly unearthed the web of corruption behind what looked like a typical, if illegal, tabloid wheeze.
One story, told in alternate chapters, is the painstaking investigation, the slow uncovering of a culture of illegality, of bullying and eye-watering hypocrisy, of journalists uncovering people’s affairs and secret lives, while working in a newsroom that seemed awash with cocaine and sex, where huge money was paid to exploit human life. It also had its own lexicon to describe its often illegal practices: monstering, blagging, muppeting, hacking.
Hack Attack is a masterclass in investigative reporting. Davies becomes driven, allying himself with a small number of lawyers, whose legal actions on behalf of hacking victims is one way of prising open information. He works with sources, many given rather exotic code names – Emissary, Lola, Mango or Ovid – some of whom are journalists at News International newspapers. And he co-operated with other media outlets, the New York Times and the BBC. It is a story driven by passion and executed with precision.
What he finds is not one rogue reporter, or even a rogue newspaper, but an industry that he describes as “driven by profit, regardless of rules, privileged by its power. Crime pays, concealment was easy.”
The importance of this book is not the details of the phone hacking but the linking of what was taking place at the News of the World and the Sun with power – the relationship between News International, its founder, Rupert Murdoch, and those elected to govern. Davies suggests Murdoch is driven by a need to expand his company, but that means those in government must deliver policies that are good for News International.
It started with Margaret Thatcher, who bent rules to allow Murdoch to buy the News of the World, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun. It meant changes in trade-union legislation, allowing him to lock out unions and start his operation inWapping. It meant the appointment as editor of the Sun of Kelvin MacKenzie, a man who "took the book of journalistic rules and flushed them down one of the office's famously horrible toilets".
Since Thatcher, British prime ministers – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and, now, David Cameron – have felt forced to deliver for Murdoch. They all know that, since 1979, no one has been elected prime minister without Murdoch's support. He wants a low-tax regime. Prime ministers deliver.
For a short period Brown became a hero of the Sun when he reduced tax, but the Sun had nothing to say about the subsequent reduction in social services. Murdoch wants no regulations that might get in the way of his business interests. He dislikes the state, the BBC and the National Health Service, and he detests the European Union. His agenda is neoliberal, his influence has been immense, and by 2011 he was using that influence to gain full control of BSkyB and so make himself one of the world’s biggest media owners.
When the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone by the News of the World – after she disappeared and was murdered – was exposed, the worlds of sleaze, business and power came together. The issue for Murdoch’s business was not a moral one. It was how to save the takeover of BSkyB. If that deal was to be saved, senior people at News International rationalised, then the News of the World must close. The brand had become “too toxic”, according to one internal email.
The closure of the title was a PR stunt. As its end was being discussed, the Sun on Sunday was already being planned. As for the BSkyB deal, it was too late.
Is this just a British story of collusion between the state and one media organisation? Davies says not; the story came out only because a reporter got caught. Murdoch has power in the US, in Australia and elsewhere because he owns a huge amount of the media. This book should be a warning about the impact of media power in too few hands, and the need for politicians to legislate to ensure diversity, and strong regulation.
As for Irish links, there are two. The BBC was told of the illegal hacking of a computer owned by an intelligence operative in Northern Ireland. The hacker obtained a fax that contained sensitive security information, which, according to Davies, he was instructed to send to the News of the World in Dublin, to the then Irish editor, Alex Marunchak. Marunchak denied receiving any illegally obtained material.
Another curious story is in a description of the sort of world in which Rebekah Brooks moved. Her neighbours in Oxfordshire are horsey and rich. Cameron lives close by, as do Jeremy Clarkson and a number of rock stars. Davies says that at one time Bono partnered Murdoch at a game of bridge at Brooks's home. It turns out that everyone is, or was, her friend.
Like Davies’s previous book, Flat Earth News, this is an important book. It lifts a curtain and allows us to see a world of corrupted power, where the media has ceased to function in the way it is meant to operate in a democracy, and where elected politicians worry more about an elderly man in New York, who has no vote in Britain, than their own electorate.
The subtitle, How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch, is somewhat optimistic, which Davies acknowledges. He ends by saying: “For a while, we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite.”