July 7, 2012

When the Guardian first reported on the phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in July 2009, the reaction of many British journalists was “So what?” British tabloid reporters, some of them anyway, take the view that anything goes in getting a story, and they laugh in the pub afterward about what are euphemistically described as “tricks of the trade.”

One of the journalists dismissive of the scandal, even long after some quite ugly details had emerged, was Roger Alton, a combative, popular writer and executive editor at Murdoch’s Times. Alton, whose career included a long spell at the Guardian, is quoted in Tom Watson and Martin Hickman’s “Dial M for Murdoch” as saying that he was as interested in the scandal as he would be about someone parking in an unauthorized parking space.

I do not know what Alton thinks now, but I do know that there are a lot fewer British journalists who will respond these days with a “So what?” The scandal is the biggest to hit Britain since the Profumo affair in the 1960s that rocked the establishment with its combination of a country mansion, a prostitute, a government minister and an alleged Russian agent.

Almost all the events described in “Dial M for Murdoch” have been well-documented in daily news coverage in Britain. The book’s value is in pulling them together into a single narrative. The impact is powerful: We come away with a clear picture o the sordid relationship that existed between the Murdoch press, the police and senior politicians.

Some of the book, written primarily for a British audience, may be mystifying to an American reader, particularly the inner workings of the parliamentary system. Overall, though, it should be accessible enough and is worth the effort, given Murdoch’s extensive holdings — such as Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — on this side of Atlantic. It helps that the book is written in the style of a thriller, hence the title lifted from the 1954 Hitchcock movie. I imagine that Hickman, a reporter for the Independent, is responsible for the fast-paced narrative, while Watson, a Labour member of parliament, supplies much of the detail, particularly about the politics. Watson has emerged as one of the heroes of the scandal for persevering with his campaign to bring phone-hacking at the News of the World into the open despite being vilified by the Murdoch press.


’Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain’ by Tom Watson & Martin Hickman (Blue Rider Press)

The cast of characters in the book includes the royal family and a long list of Hollywood celebrities, such as Hugh Grant and Jude Law. There is even a murder, although it forms one of the weakest parts of the book, with the alleged links to the overall scandal neither clearly made nor backed up with sufficient evidence. The book hardly needs a murder anyway: The story is strong enough without it.

“Dial M for Murdoch” opens with a quote from former Washington Post star Carl Bernstein comparing the scandal to Watergate: “I’ve been one who has never accepted any of this ‘gate’ stuff and all the parallels — that are usually made by the Murdoch press — to some sex scandal. . . . But this is for real. And the parallels are remarkable.” As with Watergate, the cover-up created more havoc than the initial crimes. News Corp.’s first response was to portray the phone-hacking, which is illegal, as the work of a rogue reporter. Bit by bit, it emerged that what Watson and Hickman refer to as the “dark arts” went much further than phone-hacking, which was practiced by a lot more than just one “rogue” reporter. Indeed, it was part of the culture at the News of the World, Murdoch’s Sunday paper. That this emerged at all is the result of the work of courageous independent lawyers, parliamentarians such as Watson and, above all, the persistence of Nick Davies, a longtime Guardian reporter.

Although the Guardian regularly reported on in the years after Davies’s initial story, it was a lonely crusade, largely ignored by most of the British media. Frustrated, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger in 2010 made an unusual move, seeking U.S. help, phoning then-New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who obliged by sending a reporting team to Britain for five months. After a briefing by Guardian journalists, the Times produced some new material and helped kindle interest among the rest of the British media.

Even with the attention of the New York Times, the story did not take off. That didn’t happen until July 2011, when Davies and his Guardian colleague Amelia Hill reported that the News of the World had hacked into the cellphone of a missing girl, Milly Dowler, who was later found dead. A public outcry ensued, the media suddenly paid attention, and so, too, for the first time did the government.

As a result, several investigations are underway: Lord Justice Leveson is holding a public inquiry into media culture, in particular its ethics, and police are studying a variety of alleged crimes committed by the media. More than 20 people have been arrested, most of them journalists. Murdoch has shut down the 168-year-old News of the World. Senior police officers have been forced to resign. Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, quit. One of Cameron’s senior ministers is under pressure to resign.

Above all, Murdoch, for the first time since he began in newspapers in Australia in the 1950s, has been seriously damaged. He was described by a British parliamentary committee this year as “not a fit person” to run an international company. He has lost some of his closest business associates, including Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World, who has been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Murdoch’s younger son, James, who had headed the European wing of his company, including the British newspapers, has been demoted.

The story is set to run for years yet, and, as Watson and Hickman predict, “it is going to get worse.”Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” is quite tame by comparison.

bookworld@washpost.com

Ewen MacAskill is Washington bureau chief of the Guardian.

DIAL M FOR MURDOCH

News Corporation and

the Corruption of Britain

By Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Blue Rider. 360 pp. $26.95