October 14, 2014


The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch

by Nick Davies

448 pages, Chatto & Windus

Review by Pat Black

Hack Attack, Nick Davies’ investigation of the News Corp hacking scandal, is a compelling true-life political drama exposing crime, corruption and fear at the very highest levels of British public life.

The story begins in 2006, with the exposure of mobile phone hacking by The News of the World’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman, carried out by a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire. A police inquiry was launched after suspicions were raised about hacking among the royal household, and the pair were eventually jailed after a trial.

Goodman’s editors and employers at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp claimed that the News of the World’s royal correspondent was a rogue reporter, having gone off-script in order to get stories and bolster his fragile standing among the tabloid’s staff. This was broadly accepted. Hands were washed. The Metropolitan Police carried out no further inquiries. News Corp’s close relationship with the most powerful people in the land continued.

Except… Not everyone believed it. Journalist Nick Davies and others exposed the truth: that far from one man acting alone, the criminal interception of mobile phone answerphone messages was a well-known tactic within the News of the World newsroom, long seen as a legitimate way of gathering stories in the ultra-competitive tabloid market.

Davies’ uncovering of the true picture eventually led to the closure of The News of the World, with former editor-turned-Downing Street spin doctor Andy Coulson and several others being jailed for conspiracy to intercept voicemails at the Old Bailey this year.

Hack Attack is not just the story of how criminality flourished in a newsroom. It goes into very uncomfortable territory, looking at how senior personnel at The News of the World and elsewhere in Murdoch’s global media giant engaged in very close relationships with people at the highest levels of public office - ties formed, as I see it, mainly through fear on the part of public servants that the organisation might come after them some dark day.

Dissidents including past and present Labour MPs Tom Watson, Clare Short and Chris Bryant were targeted for daring to speak out against the Murdoch papers, or indirectly challenging their commercial and political interests. Bryant’s homosexuality was seen as an open goal to the tabloids; finally, humiliating pictures of him in his underwear were published. There was also a bit of a scrum to find pictures of outspoken anti-Iraq war MP Clare Short in a nightdress, taken when she was 20, although they never appeared.

Key lesson; if you want to take on the tabloids, and there’s a picture of you in your pants existing anywhere in the world, then rest assured it will appear in a newspaper. Ditto if you’ve ever done anything wrong, or simply pissed anyone off, whether that’s family, friends, work colleagues or former partners. If they’re after you, they will get you.

But News Corp’s tentacles don’t just extend to political figures. There is also evidence of strong links with senior police officers, somewhat cosy relationships which the public were unaware of until recently.

Even more worryingly, it seems that, for reasons which have never been made clear, the Metropolitan Police sat on evidence of widespread criminal activity, in spite of repeated denials from the men at the top. The Met had the names of hundreds of victims of phone hacking, from MPs to celebrities to ordinary men and women – and in one infamous case, a child, Millie Dowler, who had been abducted and murdered. But they took no action, and in many cases they failed to warn people who had been targeted.

All the while, senior figures at Scotland Yard including former assistant commissioner John Yates deflected and denied, repeatedly claiming that no further criminality had been exposed, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise. At this time, some senior policemen were dining and drinking with News International executives.

It’s well-known that coppers never rat each other out; the same is true with journalists. We should not be totally surprised that there is some cross-pollination involved.

As well as the criminal proceedings which culminated earlier this year in Prime Minister David Cameron’s former press secretary Andy Coulson being jailed, the Leveson Inquiry was set up to examine the phone hacking scandal. It called the prime minister, senior government figures, former premiers and cabinet ministers, a hundredweight of celebrities, Britain’s top policemen and Rupert Murdoch himself to find the truth of what was going on.

At time of writing, others are awaiting trial on criminal charges, and just in the past fortnight the nominally left-wing Trinity Mirror group has admitted using phone hacking to find stories.

It’s one thing to hear about celebrity Dick having gotten down with celebrity Jane, but targeting ordinary people – and those whose loved ones were victims of appalling crimes, at that – is another matter entirely.

Public opinion in this country hardened when it turned out that News of the World reporters had hacked Millie Dowler’s voicemail. The reasons for this are unclear, but Nick Davies suggests that it was based on a false hunch that Millie was still alive and had got in touch with an employment agency about work – the end goal being for courageous and clever reporters being seen to have “found” the missing girl.

In actual fact, 13-year-old Millie had been abducted and murdered by a maniac called Levi Bellfield in the summer of 2002. Her body would not be discovered until months later. The “job hunting” line was down to a data processing error.

Davies, writing for the Guardian, alleged that reporters had been responsible for deleting voicemails on Milly’s phone, which had raised hopes among Millie’s family that the girl was still alive. Some doubt was cast on this claim later – there is a contention that Millie’s phone was programmed to delete voicemails automatically - but the fact of the matter, as nailed down by Leveson, was that the girl’s phone had been hacked.

Once advertisers joined the clamour of disgust at this revelation, The News of the World’s fate was sealed.

No-one should be surprised that a tabloid newspaper might resort to less-than-honourable tactics to get to a story. As they’ll readily tell you, a free press is a cornerstone of a free society. This is consistent with Orwell’s dictum about journalism being the publication of material which someone else does not want you to read. Like it or not, newspapers should have the right to pursue any story they wish without fear or favour, if it’s in the public interest.

However, the “without fear or favour” and “public interest” parts of that statement are the keys to the whole matter.

Even in recent years, the tabloids have wreaked havoc in ordinary people’s lives on a false perception of public interest. Chris Jefferies, a former teacher turned landlord, found himself on the front pages of several British newspapers over Christmas 2010 when one of his tenants, a young woman called Joanna Yates, was found murdered after vanishing from her flat. The man’s life was torn apart in the press, with his supposed “weirdness” being highlighted again and again for the judgment of the British public.

In actual fact, Chris Jefferies had nothing to do with Joanna Yates’ death; she was murdered by a neighbour, Vincent Tabak, who was subsequently jailed for life. A sober analysis of the facts of the case at the time would have pointed roving reporters towards the truth of the matter. Tabak fled his own flat next door to Joanna’s just after she disappeared, heading home to the Netherlands; Chris Jefferies did not fit the template of a sexually-motived killer targeting a young woman. Not that you read any of this kind of speculation as the case progressed over that frigid Christmas period.

Jefferies won substantial libel damages for the level of intrusion and innuendo he suffered. Can you imagine how that poor man felt? Not only having to deal with the horror of someone he knew having been killed, but also that he was being treated as a suspect and subject to the vilest suspicion from the general public, with his private life burst open like a suitcase on a baggage carousel… Yet he had nothing to do with it.  

The Dowlers’ case is well known, as is that of the parents of Soham murder victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who were also hacked. And then of course, there’s the still-unsolved tragedy of the McCanns, an ongoing media circus thanks to the abduction of their daughter, Madeleine, from holiday apartments in Portugal in 2007.

The tabloids continue to feast on this dreadful case, but they were not always gentle in their treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann. Among the many hellish innuendos and heinous intrusions this couple suffered in their time of trial, Kate’s private diary – something she kept hidden even from her husband - was found and published by The News of the World, an act Kate described as “mental rape”.

To undertake some devil’s advocacy, the press would trot out the old excuse that if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide. If public servants, politicians, police or anyone else is involved in corruption or criminality, then this deserves to be exposed to the taxpayer and the electorate. But this surely should not excuse criminality on the part of our guardians, except in the most pressing case of public interest. Again, “public interest” is key. Like the police, it all depends on who’s making the judgments. What the public should ask in turn is: who on earth are tabloid editors and journalists to be making these calls?

Perhaps we need to examine how we would define “public interest”.

“Something you should know about as a citizen, a taxpayer and a voter in a healthy democracy” might do, off the top of my head. However, “things the public wants to know”, could easily fit the description. And that covers the tabloid shite: the gutter stings, the exposure of drug-taking, telephoto-lens harvested images of breasts and always, always, the sex; in other words, the things we all gawp at in some form or other every single day.

The issue came up this very weekend, when Brooks Newmark, a Tory MP with a government role as, wait for it, minister for civil society, was exposed after having sent an explicit picture of himself to a woman he’d met online. In actual fact, he’d sent his picture to someone pretending to be a woman, a freelance reporter who had gathered half-naked pictures of people he didn’t know from the internet without permission in order to set up a sting.

Is the sting a legitimate tactic? No-one would deny Newmark, a married father-of-five, was foolish. But was this the first time he’d ever indulged in such behaviour? It’s like the old honey trap scenario; a man might well agree to go to bed with a woman who flattered him at a pub one night. But if the sting hadn’t been set up in the first place, and an alien, titillating scenario had never been placed in his very lap, would the man ever have misbehaved in the first place? Deliberately placing temptation in someone’s path never bodes well. The morality is murky, at best.

Indeed, is “private life” between consenting adults ever a matter of public interest? Is someone’s lawful recreational sexual activity ever going to impinge on how they carry out their jobs? You may say no, but still you read the gossip pages and scandal sheets; still it becomes common currency, the lingua franca of office chat and playground sniggering which we all indulge in. True morality, true probity in the work of newspapers and media outlets becomes cloudier the more we look into our own hearts and our own motivations.

Perhaps the start and end point to these considerations should be the law of the land. Adultery is not illegal. Phone hacking, however, is.

Nick Davies takes aim at the hypocrisy of many at News Corp for daring to expose so many affairs and drug-taking, despite their own dubious records on both scores. There are unsubstantiated rumours of seriously debauched behaviour, with lots of drug-taking going on even as The News of the World was denouncing the exact same behaviour on its front pages. The supreme irony for that champion muck-raker and kiss-and-tell clarion is that ex-editor Andy Coulson had been having an affair with Rebekah Brooks, a senior News Corp executive (herself a former Sun and News of the World editor), an entanglement that was unpicked in brutal fashion at the Old Bailey during their trial.

Rebekah Brooks, I should stress, was cleared of involvement in any criminal activity during her time at the News of the World, and her professional reputation remains completely intact.

Brooks continues to be a fascinating character. When the heat was on, Murdoch went on record as saying that protecting her was his top priority. It’s easy to see why men would be smitten by her. With her wild red curls and a certain icy self-assurance, Rebekah Brooks would have represented Christmas and birthday come at once for middle aged men in positions of authority. A former editor of The Sun and The News of the World, moving on to a senior executive role near the very summit of News Corp before she stepped down with the hacking furore at its height, Brooks was keen to get close to people in power. Former prime minister Tony Blair was known to have counselled her during the height of her travails, and she made a friend of Sarah Brown, wife of Blair’s successor at Number 10, Gordon Brown. This did not stop News Corp’s papers from delivering an immense kicking to Brown as he staggered towards defeat in the 2010 general election, nor did it prevent them from revealing that the Browns’ son was suffering from cystic fibrosis.

And yet, Brown cosied up with them, going to Brooks’ wedding in 2009, allowing Brooks to host a “pyjama party” at Chequers. You could say that Brooks demonstrates “emotional intelligence”, a strange quality which has come into vogue in the past decade. A seemingly altruistic characteristic prized and valued, but also something that can be a valuable tool for sociopaths trying to influence or upset people.

When it comes to the crunch, these people wield power. They know they can topple you – and perhaps they already have some dirt they might like to publish at a later date. So you’ll play ball, won’t you? Davies terms this latter scenario “whitemail”.

One area Davies misses out in his coverage of the story is the nature of information and how it has changed beyond all recognition in the past 15 years or so. Even as recently as the mid-to-late 1990s – it feels like an instant of time ago – gathering information was still a matter of committing something to paper or tape, or latterly, a computer disk. This is the analogue world of physical documents, recorded conversations, printed photos and voices on a telephone line. It seems quaint already. The Dark Arts of journalism were of course alive and well back then (the late Princess of Wales and her ex-husband knew all about that), but the information technology revolution changed the game forever.

Having a mobile phone or a computer – doing what I am doing this very second, typing something out while I am directly connected to vast data networks – makes it so much easier for people to pinpoint me. Who I am; exactly where I’ve been; what I’m interested in; who I know; what I’ve been doing with them; what I’ve been buying; what I’ve been looking at on the internet; private communications between friends, family, my partner; what I like and dislike; my bank details; the car I drive; where I work; what I think about all of the above. Basically, all that I am.

While most of us understand that we don’t amount to the merest scrotal pixel on the information superhighway, all of this information can nonetheless be accessed by someone with a little bit of money to spend, and perhaps an axe to grind. We would be appalled at the amount of information held on us by Google and Amazon alone, and yet we enter it so readily on our computer screens and smart phones. And that’s before we address the phenomenon of social media, which is still in its infancy. Facebook feels like it’s been here forever, but it’s only really been a fixture in most people’s lives from 2007 onwards. And yet, if the wrong kind of person was minded to look, it can detail your life even down to what you were eating for lunch that day – and all that information is provided by you, willingly, gratis.  

The nature of information and how it is stored and used by corporations is an unstoppable juggernaut as technology becomes more sophisticated, its integration with our flesh and blood lives ever more seamless. Computer hacking is a constant threat in cyberspace, and I believe that there is a crisis to come. At some point, encryption at banks or some kind of public institution will be sprung, and for a brief period of time anyone who wishes to will be able to check out your bank account details, or the data police hold about you, or your medical records. It seems inevitable that it will happen. We might look back with some nostalgia on the good old days of intrusion characterised by paparazzi photos of someone with their top off on a beach.

“Sharing” is becoming a bit of a dirty word. Too much of it is automatic; it should be something you decide to opt into, not out of. A little less sharing might do you some good. On the other hand, if you wish to remain truly private, then there is little room for you in the digital world. Phone hacking is the inevitable conclusion of our lives being committed to digital records, minute by minute. Someone, somewhere, is interested in you, and not for any ostensibly positive human reason. Most likely they want your money. They might also want your time and attention. They might want to learn your dirtiest secret, and they might take pleasure in sharing it with the world, to put you in a state of fear and alarm. Or to ruin you.

The good thing about this sudden sea of information is that platforms exist for us to get to the truth of some matters rather more quickly than a tabloid newspaper might. There are two fantastic recent examples of news events and grassroots uprisings which took place entirely outside of the traditional media enclaves: the civil rights protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following a police shooting which might otherwise have gone quietly from the headlines, and the drive for Scottish independence, which almost triumphed from a standing start and a 20-point opinion poll deficit, despite almost zero support from the mainstream media (the Sunday Herald being the one honourable exception).

The game has changed. We are all journalists now, at the touch of a button. We are all photographers, broadcasters and publishers. 

Newspapers, especially in Britain, still set the agenda. People in power still dance to their tune. But their days are coming to an end. Circulation is plummeting among most titles. In the past decade alone, their sales have seen stomach-churning drops, even among the big beasts of the jungle. They’re feeling the strain. Some newsrooms which teemed with activity a decade ago are now ghost towns; staff levels at many titles have been decimated. At a local level, the effect is quite simply catastrophic. Most regional papers are struggling.

Online, churnalism abounds. At best this is a harmless distraction, but at worst, it hand-feeds corporate interests by playing on public apathy. Today, you probably clicked on a link to some top 10 or other, or a regurgitated showbiz gossip piece. You possibly had a look at the first few seconds of a viral video of someone’s 15 minutes of public humiliation. But you probably didn’t check what’s happening in your own town, in your own community – or if you did, it wasn’t a priority. This apathy is bad for democracy and bad for society. It breeds ignorance, which plays into the hands of corporations which would much rather you didn’t take any interest in them at all.

Newspapers and media groups were painfully slow to embrace online platforms. One national newspaper which could count on colossal daily sales as recently as 12 years ago has still to fully grasp basic concepts of interactivity, message board commenting, playable videos and live pictures. For much of the Noughties they jealously guarded their content in the hope that people would “always buy a paper”, and that the internet was some kind of fad. That newspaper’s circulation is now about a third of what it once was.

There’s no chance of the genie going back in its bottle. The future is digital. Some big names in our media world will be gone in 10 years’ time unless they adapt, and adapt radically.

As Davies stresses, not everyone who works on tabloid newspapers is a bad person. I could point out plenty of lovely, brilliant, talented people who earn a living with them. As in any other workplace, they’re not the ones you need to worry about. They’re not the ones Davies is taking aim at. In a confessional opening to the book, he reveals that he was bullied when he was younger, and those experiences have led him to seek out and confront bullies. This is honourable. Where do you find true honour in public life?

There is a common perception of journalists as being “street fighters” – tough, seasoned, Chandleresque individuals, fond of a drink, not averse to a ruck, and happy to administer a knee in the balls or a stab in the back as the occasion dictates. This doesn’t apply in the vast majority of cases. Many are decent, hard-working people with a genuine interest in the truth and keeping the public informed. I guess you’ll find one or two street fighters in the mix, somewhere, and not a few drinkers. But the worst specimens I’ve encountered from that world aren’t street fighters at all – they’re the shitbags who might hover around the edges of a fight, before darting in to plant a kick in the teeth of someone lying on the deck. Often, standing up for what is morally right or decent is nothing like as important as delivering this kick, or parading around with the stained underwear they stole off the line the night before.

Hack Attack is an exciting read, taking on the tones of a thriller as the author tackles the dark figures ranged against him. Nick Davies’ peroration in this book’s epilogue is a wonderful thing – a rebel yell against the corporatist forces which seek to dictate public policy, remove regulations, safeguards and scrutiny and ultimately harm democracy and our free society. Like Orwell’s work, I will return to that piece of writing whenever the world – perversely, never so bright, never so closely connected – grows a little too dark for my liking.

And yet, as Davies concedes, Hack Attack does not mark a victory. The exposure of the hacking scandal is not a Death Star moment; in fact it barely qualifies as an Endor shield generator moment. The Emperor remains in his throne room. These events did not cast the Murdoch clan out of the public sphere. It did not lessen their influence. It did not even cost them money; during the hacking scandal, News Corp’s shares rose sharply in value.

It has not completely removed the possibility of News Corp increasing its control over BSkyB, which would make it the biggest, most powerful media company the world has ever seen. Going by the front page reactions to David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham in recent days, it has not lessened the company’s influence in political life.

The News of the World was staked through the heart, but, like Christopher Lee’s Dracula, it soon emerged from the smouldering ashes in a predictable sequel as The Sun on Sunday – same paper, effectively, but with a different name.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, allowed a criminal into the heart of Downing Street, despite concerns being raised about the hiring of Andy Coulson as his press secretary. Cameron insists all background checks and protocols had been followed to the letter, but the fact remains. Incredibly, he has escaped serious censure for this oversight. In parliament, Ed Miliband was scathing in his criticism of the Prime Minister, but the Labour leader failed to ask Cameron for his resignation, as he should have done.

Cameron and the Tories will most likely win the 2015 general election. Lurking behind that outcome, the grinning spectre of Boris Johnson looms large.

Andy Coulson’s head was duly served on a plate, but anyone smacking their lips over such a spectacle might reflect that he was one of the few working class boys involved in the bigger picture.

The hacking scandal and the subsequent inquiry failed to provide any statutory underpinning to tackle unacceptable behaviour by the press – in the wake of, we must be fair, legitimate concerns about state regulation of the media.

Under the new Independent Press Standards Organisation, the media industry in the UK will effectively continue to regulate itself, meaning we have learned nothing from the failures of the defunct and now almost completely discredited Press Complaints Commission.

The Dark Arts, you suspect, will continue to be practised by their adepts. Ordinary, blameless people and those who wish to conduct their own private lives, privately, will continue to be eaten alive by the beast in the same mouthful as the corrupt, the criminal and the craven. Who will stand up for them? 

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