Guardian reporter battles the British power elite

One of the biggest media stories in history was right in front of Nick Davies, and he almost missed it

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch
By Nick Davies
Chatto & Windus
448 pages
Hardcover, £20

In 2008, Nick Davies put out a book arguing that the British press had become passive conduits of propaganda and public relations. It was the serious newspapers and broadcasters that concerned him then. “Nobody needs a book to tell them that tabloids are an unreliable source of information about the world,” he wrote, relegating to an afterthought his reporting that tabloids were hiring snoops who broke the law to get information. One of the biggest media stories in history was right in front of him, and Davies almost missed it.

Hack Attack is Davies’s account of how he finally nailed it, following the story all the way inside Scotland Yard, News Corporation, and 10 Downing Street.

This book is a major achievement: A master class in investigative journalism made all the more fascinating by the wealth of color that’s like something from another era. One reporter snorts coke with high-end prostitutes to build up sources and expenses it, at his editors’ urging. Another gets the nickname Onan the Barbarian after trying to con nudists into performing sex acts and is videotaped in his own. Charlie the Sniffer Dog, whom the Sun uses to find drugs on celebrities, causes a panic when someone lets him into the paper’s own newsroom. We learn of a one-armed blagger (someone who gets someone’s private information by pretending to be that person) called Mickey the Mouse, a corrupt cop named “Drunken” Duncan Hanrahan, and a feline-obsessed phone tapper who changed his name to Phil Catt.

Then there are the details we already knew about (thanks mostly to Davies’s reporting in The Guardian) but which still have the power to shock: The private eye and axe-murder suspect rehired by News of the World after leaving prison for planting cocaine on a woman, and the paper’s subsequent interference with cops investigating him for his partner’s axe murder. The hacking and blagging of the royal family, the prime minister, and national security officials. The blatant destruction of evidence, with News Corp. executives ordering the deletion of hundreds of millions of old emails, as Davies and lawyers representing hacking victims close in. The overt payoffs to key witnesses, and the lucrative columns given to top Scotland Yard officials responsible for the pitiful initial investigation. The 2007 hiring of Andy Coulson, shortly after he resigned in disgrace as editor of News of the World, as spokesman for the Tories, and his ascent to 10 Downing Street three years later. And, of course, there is Milly Dowler. The murdered 13 year old’s phone messages were hacked by the News of the World, which withheld potentially critical information from the police while it chased the story.

The stories that prompted this systematic lawbreaking weren’t exactly Watergate material, either: “Bonking headmaster … Dirty vicar … Miss World bonks sailor … Witchdoctor … TV love child … Junkie flunkie,” read the slugs in one hacker’s files.

It was a sociopathic culture. “You are going to do things that no sane man would do,” one tabloid journalist told Davies. “You’re in a machine. Everyone was drinking everyone’s blood.”

What Davies did not yet know when he wrote Flat Earth News was that the criminal activity on Fleet Street, and the failure of authorities to fully confront it, revealed a rottenness at the core of Britain’s most powerful institutions, caused largely by fear of a foreigner who controlled 40 percent of the country’s newspaper circulation and its largest pay TV network.

“The mogul, for the most part, does not have to make threats or issue instructions… If there’s a bull in the field, everybody steps carefully,” Davies writes. “The fear gives him access; the access, gives him influence. Real power is passive.” There was never a better argument against media consolidation.

It was in promoting Flat Earth News that Davies got tuned in to the hacking scandal. In early 2008, he went head to head on the BBC’s “Today” program with News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner, who insisted that an earlier episode in which his employees had hacked the royal family and gone to jail, had been a one-off incident. That was false, and it angered a listener who knew better. That source phoned up Davies, met him in a London hotel room, and told him that not only was it not true but that Scotland Yard had failed miserably to investigate the extent of the hacking. Davies, now had a tabloid story worth pursuing.

It wasn’t until more than a year later that Davies nailed down enough information to publish his first piece, “Murdoch papers paid £1 million to gag phone-hacking victims.” The pushback was immediate and fierce. Scotland Yard claimed the report was false and would go on covering up the truth for years. Rebekah Brooks warned darkly about Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger’s (nonexistent) “love child”, and The Times of London, Murdoch’s respectable paper, threatened to run a story accusing Rusbridger of paying for hacking. The rest of the press largely ignored the news or jumped on Scotland Yard’s denial. Davies and Rusbridger were hauled before Parliament for a grilling.

Stonewalled by the police and by News Corp. and helped none at all by the rest of the press, Davies became an activist for his story, passing burner phones to skittish sources, urging hacking victims to sue and others not to settle (News Corp. offered big money to pay off anyone who got close to disclosing key documents in court), sharing information with The New York Times and others to get them to do stories, and plotting with members of parliament and plaintiff’s attorneys to force documents into the open. He eventually found someone who offered to bankroll the legal efforts of several victims: Max Mosley, the Formula One chief who held a grudge against Murdoch and the News of the World for reporting on his cavorting with prostitutes.

Much of this would be verboten by American newspaper standards, of course, which generally forbid reporters from becoming active participants in a story, but it’s unclear if Davies would have been able to get the story otherwise. Regardless, the import of the story and the extent of the coverup clearly justified extraordinary measures.

In the end, it was the Dowler story that blew the scandal wide open. Murdoch shut down the News of the World and lost a multibillion-dollar bid to increase his stranglehold over British media. News Corp. paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to its victims, and several of its journalists are now convicts. Politicians were finally freed to condemn Murdoch, and for a time it seemed as if the spell had been broken.

But Murdoch still exercises inordinate clout, as evidenced by the overwhelming legal firepower he deployed to get Rebekah Brooks, who oversaw two newsrooms roiling with crime and then covered it up, acquitted of all charges. His son, James Murdoch, has not been charged in the coverup. As with many corporate scandals, the people at the top are insulated from prosecution by plausible deniability. Andy Coulson falls, but Rupert Murdoch is richer than ever and bidding to become even more powerful.

You can’t blame Davies for that. He’s done as much as one journalist can possibly do.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,