Here’s what an American journalism scandal looks like: In October 2013, CBS News’s flagship program “60 Minutes” runs an investigative piece on the Benghazi attacks of Sept. 11, 2012. The marquee source for the report turns out to be a fraud. “60 Minutes” apologizes, and two staffers, including Lara Logan, take leaves of absence. The misconduct doesn’t even approach a criminal offense.
Here’s what a British journalism scandal looks like: News of the World, a tabloid under the corporate roof of Rupert Murdoch, works with private investigators to illegally hack into the voicemail messages of royalty, celebrities, politicians and common folk. The privacy intrusions torment the targets, forcing them into batty self-questioning about how a newspaper could have procured their innermost secrets. All of British society — its media, its politicians, its corrupt police and a populace that supports rancid tabloid journalism — is implicated.
Where would you rather work as an investigative journalist?
Nick Davies, a journalist who writes for the British newspaper the Guardian, takes on the juicier of these scenarios in “Hack Attack,” a dry, 400-page inventory of journalistic criminality and official complicity at the heart of power in Britain. On one level, Davies is the perfect person to corral this massive plume of facts and evasions into a single volume. He nailed pivotal stories in the phone-hacking scandal, including the July 2011 scoop documenting that News of the World hacked into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, a girl from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, who’d been murdered and dumped in the woods in 2002.
Ka-boom! The Dowler revelation set in motion all the familiar events of the phone-hacking saga: the shuttering of News of the World; the withdrawal of Murdoch’s bid to acquire full ownership of the British satellite broadcaster BSkyB; the appearance of Murdoch before a British parliamentary committee to say, “This is the most humble day of my life”; a recently concluded trial ending with the conviction of Andy Coulson, a former top editor at News of the World who went on to serve British Prime Minister David Cameron; and the debasement of James Murdoch, the pre-hacking favorite to succeed his father atop the conglomerate.
Cause and effect didn’t partner too well here, though — which is the point of Davies’s book. The phone-hacking timeline reaches back at least as far as January 2007, when News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and hacking specialist Glenn Mulcaire were convicted of intercepting communications. What followed that event was years of stonewalling by Murdoch’s people in Britain — including the magnetic and resourceful Rebekah Brooks, a favorite of the mogul himself — and police incompetence, which combined to slow-walk this story into the public realm.
All the roadblocks, the denials, the investigative dead ends, the frustrations — they’re chronicled one by one in “Hack Attack.” Some of the stonewalls are memorable. After the Guardian reported in 2009 that the company had paid gag money to hacking victims, Metropolitan Police Service Assistant Commissioner John Yates stepped forward to “gently demolish our work.” Though the Guardian had alleged that phone-hacking victims might number in the hundreds or thousands, Yates announced that the tactic had been used against a “far smaller number of individuals.”
What could explain such a discrepancy? This, possibly: an official interpretation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that outlawed voicemail hacking only “if the intended recipient had not already heard the message that was hacked,” as Davies puts it. In other words, it’s fine to hack into people’s saved messages! This interpretation, Davies surmised, was a way to excuse the police’s inexcusable refusal to hop on the leads for thousands of phone-hacking cases sitting in their evidence rooms.
Pushback against Davies’s reporting among Murdoch media properties was brisk. Responding to Davies’s story about the gag settlements, the company issued a three-page statement shouting down the Guardian, and Brooks wrote in a letter to the House of Commons: “The Guardian coverage, we believe, has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public.” Such denunciations, Davies writes, “ran like water down a mountain through the columns of the Murdoch newspapers and the bulletins of his Sky News channel.” Murdoch owns other British titles, including the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times.
Fancy PR tactics, a specialty of Murdoch Inc., couldn’t swamp the truth that Davies managed to pry out of his sources and documents. The author’s tick-tock tour through the denials of the Murdoch people yields an important insight: They never did the right thing. Only after Davies nailed them with the Milly Dowler story — overwhelming evidence of their malice — did the News Corp. people apologize and promise to make amends. When the evidence was merely convincing, they schemed to sidestep responsibility.
The ethics-averse approach to newspapering receives a full patdown from “Hack Attack.” In a chapter titled “Crime in Fleet Street,” Davies tracks the scourge of British media criminality to Murdoch’s properties: “Crimes which had been nurtured by three Murdoch papers had spread through almost all of the other national titles. What was being concealed after the arrest of Goodman and Mulcaire was not simply one rogue reporter, nor even one rogue newspaper. This was an industry which had gone rogue, driven by profit, regardless of rules, privileged by its power. Crime paid. Concealment was easy.”
How deep did the rot go at News of the World? Well, editor Coulson had a policy of pitting the news division against the features division, the better to keep his people motivated. Motivated, that is, to slime people. When the news division racked up a series of scoops from hacking, how’d the features division respond? By learning to hack.
Juicy berries such as that are plucked from much bramble and tall grass in Davies’s account. It’s on this level that his worldview as an investigative journalist works against him: Instead of preparing a narrative based on the towering personalities of, say, Brooks or James Murdoch, Davies opts for a chronology of his own reporting. Seemingly no killer e-mail exchange or phone call merits omission from this book. Consider that Chapter 1 is titled “February 2008 to July 2009.” Yum!
At the tail end, Davies evolves from gumshoe to ideologue, lamenting that his work didn’t reverse the drift toward neoliberal laissez-faire governance, as if he expected it would. “For a while, we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite,” he writes, in what may stand as the phone-hacking scandal’s foremost humblebrag.
The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch
By Nick Davies
Faber and Faber. 430 pp. $27