At the time, the subject was treated as a niche media story rather than a matter of broad public interest. “It was scarcely reported,” said Peter Oborne, a respected political columnist for the The Daily Telegraph who hosted a 2010 documentary on the hacking. “It was as if it was something of incredibly minor importance. It was always well back on the inside pages, lost in a few paragraphs if it was mentioned at all.”
So it would remain for two years. Then, in July 2009, The Guardian’s Nick Davies wrote the first piece describing the true extent of the phone-hacking scandal. Davies uncovered evidence suggesting thousands had been victims, ranging from celebrities to politicians to ordinary people—including the parents of murdered children, it was later claimed—who had happened to find themselves caught up in something the News of the World thought was interesting. His story revealed that News International had quietly paid out more than £1 million in a series of cases brought by alleged hacking victims, settled on the condition that they sign gag orders. Furthermore, the article claimed that many victims were never informed by London’s Metropolitan Police, which had close ties to the paper, that their phones had been targeted. Later, it would be revealed that the Met held information that suggested other reporters were involved, but, possibly fearing retribution from an organization that Brooks had once told a parliamentary committee had paid police officers for information, failed to act on it. (Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who led the widely-criticized operation, later left the police to work for Murdoch’s Times as a columnist.)
Davies hoped other newspapers would join the hunt. “If you have one story that exposes wrongdoing by the media, by the police, by the political classes, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?” he said. “But no one followed it up at all.”
Silence on Fleet Street
Why? To some close observers, the answer is obvious. “Lots of people were doing it,” said Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, a trade publication. “They think the best thing to do is let sleeping dogs lie.” The New York Times’s Don Van Natta Jr., a former London-based investigative correspondent who returned as part of a team assigned to the scandal, was shocked by what seemed to be a widespread reliance on such methods. “It was probably worse than I had thought, and done more openly, and more systematically,” he said. “And I had the very clear sense that it was not just the News of the World.”
British newspaper proprietors have enjoyed a longstanding tradition of covering each other’s travails as minimally as possible, lest wounded rivals take revenge. Seven of the people I spoke to in the reporting of this story used some variation on the phrase “dog doesn’t eat dog.”
According to reporters across Fleet Street, it is clear that there can be negative professional consequences for those who report this kind of story—though there is never a need to make that fact explicit. “It would have been an absolute joke if someone had pitched it—they would have been laughed at, treated with suspicion, even,” said a journalist who used to work at Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, two newspapers also renowned for a certain ruthlessness in pursuit of a scoop. “Everyone knew that that was the state of affairs.”
Besides the aversion to the story at a senior level, there’s a sense that in London’s incestuous media scene there are simply too many journalists at any given paper who at some point or another will have been involved in similarly questionable activities. “There’s an acceptance that what was going on was dodgy,” says a staffer at Mirror Group, which publishes the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and The People. “But a lot of people know the people. And there’s so much crossover. There are lots of stories that people [at Mirror Group] are tied up in this.”
In November 2009, the Press Complaints Commission, a voluntary regulator frequently derided as toothless, declared that there was no new evidence of phone hacking at the News of the World. (Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger resigned from the body in protest.) Davies’s follow-ups failed to get traction. Andy Coulson stuck to his guns and hung on to his politically sensitive job despite mounting evidence suggesting that if he had indeed operated in blissful ignorance of his underlings’ criminal activity, he had been an utterly incompetent top editor.
An American Intervention
That the situation changed does no great credit to the British press. In March 2010, The New York Times dispatched Van Natta, Jo Becker, and Graham Bowley to London. They would break the story back open.