Nick Davies is the journalist who broke the phone-hacking story. He talks to Yvette Huddleston ahead of his visit to the Ilkley Literature Festival.
It started out small but it turned into one of the biggest and most damaging stories about the British press ever to have hit the newsstands. Not only that, it exposed a level of corruption at the heart of the establishment that was hard to imagine.
The fact that the story ever got told at all is largely down to the courage and tenacity of a small number of people on just one newspaper. In July 2009 Guardian investigative reporter Nick Davies wrote the first of what would be more than a hundred articles about the extent of phone hacking at the Murdoch-owned News of the World, writing that News International had paid out more than £1million in hush money to settle hacking cases. It turned out to be the beginning of a project that would take up six years of Davies’ life. In July his book Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, a detailed account of his investigation, was published and he will be speaking about it at Ilkley Literature Festival this weekend.
“I think it was always obvious the story was very important from the outset,” says Davies. “When I was first looking at this crime at the News of the World you could see clearly that the police had evidence and had failed to pursue it and the Press regulators also had evidence that they failed to follow up on. And I thought then that this is probably something to do with power, and particularly the power of Rupert Murdoch, and once we saw that aspect of the story, we began to see that it was a very important subject.”
The origins of the News of the World hacking story went back to 2006 when two employees of the paper – royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire – had been arrested and later convicted of the crime of intercepting the voicemail of members of the royal family. News of the World editor Andy Coulson insisted firstly that he had known nothing of what they had been doing and secondly that the men were ‘rogue’ operators and it was an isolated incident, but Davies thought otherwise. In this belief he was always supported by the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger who is also a close friend. “He is terrific – very calm and very brave,” says Davies. “And so with a story like this where you are being attacked by the Press Complaints Commission, the biggest police force in the country and the Murdoch press you need someone like that who will stand by you. There aren’t many editors who would have done that.”
The book is a real page-turner and reads like a pacy crime thriller with Davies as the steadfast gumshoe determined to get to the truth, rooting out cover-ups, bribes and all manner of dirty dealing. Satisfyingly, some of the turns of phrase wouldn’t sound out of place in a film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe. And that tone is entirely appropriate given the scale of the criminality Davies went on to uncover. As he notes at one point, Rusbridger told him that he sometimes felt ‘as though he were living in a Stieg Larsson novel, full of endless plots and dark machinations.’
“With this particular story there is an extraordinary fluke that gives the second part of the book real pace and excitement,” says Davies. “And that is that at the same time as people were trying to uncover criminal acts at the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch was trying to broker the biggest deal of his life with the BSkyB takeover bid. It just so happened that these two things started to coincide. If Murdoch could push this deal through he was on the way to becoming one of the most powerful men on the planet.”
As Davies dug deeper in his investigations, it soon became apparent that at the centre of what gradually transpired to be a great deal of illegal activity was an, at best, unhealthy alliance between certain sectors of the press, the police and Westminster. These are the people who Davies refers to in the book as ‘the power elite’ and they are characterised by their supreme arrogance, ruthlessness and sense of entitlement. It was to prove their undoing.
“I think that the Murdoch crew failed to understand that their constant show of aggression towards us was forcing us to keep going,” says Davies. “After the first story appeared, left to my own devices I would have followed it up for a week or two and then moved on. But when they started saying that the Guardian was deliberately misleading the British people our credibility was at stake so we couldn’t walk away from it. Then the Press Complaints Commission published a very aggressive report attacking the Guardian and defending the News of the World.” This antagonistic behaviour had the opposite effect of what was intended.
Through sympathetic sources Davies slowly began to get an idea of the atmosphere in which journalists at the News of the World were working. Bullying was commonplace and there was a constant pressure to get the story by any means necessary. “I think the big picture here is that a lot good people become journalists and some of them end up working for bad organisations. Then they are faced with a moral choice,” says Davies. “We got a lot of help with the story from many people who had worked for the News of the World and walked away, effectively they had listened to their conscience. Others chose to stay – some of them did so because they didn’t have an option, but there were a few people there who appear to have acted with great enthusiasm. And within the culture of the office they came to believe that it really was right to expose people’s private lives.”
Davies and the Guardian were putting their heads above the parapet and for a long time were treading a very lonely path. “There were some other journalists who were trying to expose the story, but by and large Fleet Street didn’t want to cover it,” says Davies. “This was either because they were committing similar crimes, they were part of the Murdoch Press or they were supporting the Conservative party and by that time Andy Coulson was working as media adviser to David Cameron.” The turning point in the investigation came when Davies discovered that the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by journalists at the News of the World. He filed the story in July 2011 with a note to Rusbridger that ‘this may be the most powerful hacking story so far.’
“The immediate effect of the Milly Dowler story was that it hit an emotional note,” says Davies. “It meant that the rest of the press couldn’t justify their silence any more. And it caused a chain reaction.” That chain reaction led all the way to the closure of the News of the World, the arrest of major players in News International including Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks and the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry which put under scrutiny the ethics, culture and practices of the press and their relationship with politicians and the police.
It was a major shake-up. However, Davies is not optimistic about the future, concluding in the book that ‘for a while we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite’. “I think there is an enormous amount of pessimism in the country as a whole and there are all sorts of complicated reasons for that,” he says. “Part of the problem is that we have allowed democratic power to move away from the people and into the hands of a small group who have tremendous financial and political power. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of pretending that, just because we exposed a lot of interesting information, we changed the world. We haven’t. We have stopped national newspapers from committing crimes, at least for a while, but we still don’t have effective press regulation and the financial and political inequality remains.”
Hack Attack by Nick Davies is published by Chatto & Windus, £20. Nick Davies is appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday October 18. www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk