Power, politics and the press: the man who brought Rupert Murdoch to book

Nick Davies’s pursuit of the phone-hacking scandal shut down the ‘News of the World’. Now he’ll show you how to be an investigative reporter

 

Back in the early days of Nick Davies’s investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World newspaper, someone contacted students who had attended his journalism masterclasses to ask two questions: “Did he encourage you to do anything illegal?” and “Did he sleep with you?” Davies laughs. “For better and for worse the answer in both cases was no, so they didn’t get a story.”

Someone was trying to discredit him. Being “monstered” in papers owned by Rupert Murdoch was a real possibility, he says. His collaborators in the investigation, the lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris and the politician Tom Watson, were followed by private investigators, according to Davies, and secretly videoed, in “an attempt to find something sexual that they could use to punish them”.

He sighs. “It’s completely illegitimate. There we are, digging out this scandal. Just supposing one of us had been having an affair, how would that possibly relate to the truth or importance of the scandal that was being brought out? It’s absolutely illegitimate and irrelevant, but that is their favourite weapon, because of course it’s terribly painful to have your sex life splashed across national news media.”

The darker end of Fleet Street, says Davies, operates on fear. It understands “that pain is a very effective source of power. It’s the power of the schoolyard bully who beats up two or three children and then all the other children tiptoe around, trying to placate him. A handful of MPs had their sex lives exposed, therefore the great mass of MPs tiptoe around the Murdoch papers and hope they won’t get attacked.”

Davies describes himself as a “cat who likes to walk alone”, a freelancer who works mainly for the Guardian from his home in Sussex, in southern England. He has worked on its WikiLeaks story, written an excellent book about journalism, Flat Earth News, and, most recently, uncovered the biggest journalistic scandal of the age and written a book about that, too, Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch.

Phone hacking

The hacking story had an inauspicious beginning, with the arrest of the News of the World’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire for phone hacking. “Listening to someone’s voice messages is wrong, and a crime, but it isn’t a big-league crime, so that was a 48-hour story,” he says.

But after a television appearance alongside the News of the World’s managing editor Stuart Kuttner in 2009, Davies was contacted by a source who told him that hacking was endemic at News International, the Murdoch company that owned the News of the World, the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times, and that this was a much bigger story about corruption and power involving senior police, political figures and journalists.

“The evidence of the true scale of the criminality was already in the hands of Scotland Yard, and they had decided not to act on it . . . Why would they ignore crime of that scale?”

Then there was the fact that the man who had presided over much of this bad behaviour, the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, now worked for David Cameron, the man who looked as if he was going to be the next prime minister. “From the outset you could see that it really was a story about power and an abuse of power.”

Why didn’t other journalists pursue it? “I think rather a lot of those journalists were working for papers owned by Rupert Murdoch,” Davies says. “Some were working for right-wing newspapers that don’t want to upset the conservative leadership . . . and others had been working for newspapers that had been committing the same crimes.”

In the early days the story was built largely on anonymous sources and documents that Davies was unable to admit he had seen. He and the Guardian’s long-standing editor at the time, Alan Rusbridger, were going to have to go before a parliamentary committee and justify themselves, he says. “At the last moment, just before the committee hearing took place, a source allowed me to use some paperwork, so we could prove the truth of the core of what we were saying.”

In Hack Attack Davies describes his children redacting those documents by hand – and how Rusbridger had arranged to squeeze his knee under the table at the committee hearing if he felt Davies was rambling. “We started on the paper on the same day, in July 1979, both of us inky-fingered little fourth-formers. [We] always look after each other.”

One of his lowest points, Davies says, was hearing a taxi driver refer to the story as a mistake the Guardian had made. Many newspapers had not reported the facts as he and the Guardian had covered them, he says. “The Murdoch press and Sky News had run the denials from Rebekah Brooks” – chief executive of News International at the time, and Coulson’s predecessor as editor of the News of the World – “on a huge scale. So people were misinformed. It’s scary, because you are dealing with people who are aggressively dishonest,” he says. “It’s breathtaking to see the extent to which Murdoch’s company lied through their teeth and also the extent to which the police consistently misled press, public and parliament.”

Ultimately, he says, this aggressive dishonesty was their undoing. “Left to my own devices I would have gone off and done something else after a few weeks,” he says, but “they were putting the credibility of the Guardian, and I guess me, at stake. So I had to try to stay and salvage my reputation . . . At several points when I would have left the story their hostility meant that I stayed engaged.”

To protect themselves Davies and Rusbridger sought out allies in law and politics and at other news organisations. “The normal position would be that the reporter and editor want to run exclusive stories. Our political situation was so vulnerable we reversed that.” They contacted and briefed the New York Times and several television journalists. “In a small-P way we were thinking politically.”

Milly Dowler

News of the World

It became clear that thousands of people, many of them well known, had been hacked or had their privacy intruded on, that there were overly cosy relationships between members of the police, journalists, private investigators and politicians, and that illegal activity was known about at top levels at News Corp, News International’s parent company.

It led to the abandonment of News Corp’s bid to take over BSkyB, the closure of the News of the World, the jailing of Andy Coulson and the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry, under which the senior judge Brian Leveson investigated the culture, practice and ethics of the British press.

“I thought the Leveson Inquiry was a really wonderful experience,” he says. “To see all those people from the power elite being compelled to come out in public and give evidence on oath, and to have paperwork disclosed, and text messages and emails, it was just about unique as an insight into the way power really works.”

On the other hand Davies is concerned that many of Leveson’s recommendations haven’t been implemented and that, “in terms of power structure, . . I don’t think anything has changed.”

Has the Murdoch press lost its power? “No,” he says. “I think they’ve lost their prestige. As a symbolic thing, they’ve not been able to resurrect the summer party which Murdoch always held in London . . . But the newspapers are behaving as badly as ever.”

Davies thinks that a lot of the ethical issues in journalism are a product of deep structural problems. He rails against “the poisonous impact of commercialism in journalism”. “The tabloid newspaper belongs to a profit-hungry corporation,” he says. “Senior management will hand down to the editors, who will hand down to the reporters, this urgent, consistent message – ‘Sell more copies of this paper . . . Go get a story that no one else has got’ – and, implicitly, if that involves breaking the rules or the law, never mind.”

He’s glad he works for a newspaper less susceptible to such pressures; the Guardian is owned by a trust. He is passionate about the “strange, subtle skills” good journalists use to encourage people to talk to them and damning about bad journalists’ dependence on bribery and coercion.

Although Davies is worried about the industry’s failing business model, he is more optimistic than he once was about the future of investigative reporting. “I think maybe investigations are coming back into their own,” he says, listing a number of big stories that the Guardian has run, including the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden stories.

Watergate

Carl BernsteinBob WoodwardWashington Post

“I was trying to think of interesting things I could do to get involved with the world, and these two reporters unseated the most powerful politician in the world because he was corrupt,” he says. “I think a lot of people of my age went into journalism because of it and a lot of news organisations set up investigative teams because of it.”

One evening in July 2011 Davies was sitting at home when his phone rang. “I picked it up, and this gravelly American voice said, ‘This is Carl Bernstein. I just want to say well done.’ It was like God calling. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Nick Davies is holding a three-day workshop on investigative reporting, from July 15th to 17th, at West Cork Literary Festival, in Bantry. He will also take part in a public interview on July 15th

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