Crash and burn: Colin Myler, last editor of the News of the World, closes the paper in 2011. Photo: Tom Stoddart/Getty
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Other people’s voicemail: how phone-hacking became the news

The author and screenwriter Peter Jukes reviews two new exposés on the News of the World scandal. 

Hack Attack 
Nick Davies
Chatto & Windus, 448pp, £20

The News Machine: Hacking – the Untold Story 
James Hanning with Glenn Mulcaire
Gibson Square, 288pp, £14.99

 

“The only truly effective critics of power are the journalists – particularly investigative journalists,” said the great postwar historian Tony Judt in a conversation shortly before he died in 2010. A year later, in 2011, Guardian reporter Nick Davies broke the story about the News of the World hacking the phone of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler and his report brought News International, one of the most powerful unelected organisations in Britain, to its knees. Hack Attack, Davies’s “story about power and truth”, proves Judt’s point almost perfectly. This long-awaited book is a gripping account of the investigative journalist’s trade and the sheer chutzpah, charm, persistence and deviousness it takes to break news – to expose something that somebody somewhere doesn’t want you to know. For Davies, this involved battling with various forces, most dangerously with other parts of the media.

Like a gumshoe thriller, Hack Attack pitches the lone investigator against a wider, tentacular corporate and political plot. Davies became involved in the hacking story in early 2008, after an unpleasant radio interview with the then managing editor of the News of the World, Stuart Kuttner, about the conviction of the paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire a year earlier. Davies was contacted by an outraged source who had heard the interview – “Mr Apollo” – who told him that phone-hacking was far more pervasive. Soon afterwards, at a dinner party, a senior police officer confirmed that the victims were in their thousands.

With his father dominating British cultural life for the past four decades as the owner of nearly 40 per cent of the national press, James Murdoch was about to launch an £8bn bid to take full control of Britain’s most lucrative broadcaster, BSkyB – a project modestly called “Rubicon”. He planned to amalgamate news, online and broadcast in a cross-platform digital hub in Isleworth. Showing the scope of his ambitions, the younger Murdoch called it “Wapping 2”.

Throughout 2009, as Davies pieced together shreds of evidence – such as the “For Neville” email of transcribed voicemail messages (Neville Thurlbeck was the News of the World’s chief reporter) and a contract for Mulcaire signed by the former news editor Greg Miskiw – he was straying into the juggernaut’s headlights. James Murdoch dropped News International’s support for Gordon Brown’s New Labour in 2009 in favour of David Cameron’s Conservatives. The Tories had promised to limit Ofcom and reduce the influence of the BBC; they were more likely to help James prove to News Corp, News International’s parent company, that he was the heir apparent.

These two narratives – of the journalistic desire for disclosure and of a corporate drive for confidentiality and control – were like “two electrical wires coming together”, as Davies explains it, which would eventually end in a “white flash and a mighty explosion”. The ignition point was Davies’s revelation on 4 July 2011 that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s mobile phone. The news resulted in the closure of the 168-year-old Sunday tabloid, the resignation and arrest of Rebekah Brooks (who had recently been installed as CEO of News International), the conviction of Cameron’s former press secretary Andy Coulson and curtains for the BSkyB bid and James Murdoch’s ambitions. But it could have gone the other way. It very nearly did.

The most instructive parts of Davies’s book document the rejection and ridicule he had to suffer. He describes the reaction to his first big story in 2009 as a “torrent of aggression” and recalls his own “feelings of dread”. The then editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, told the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger: “I will always retaliate and I have many more readers than you do.” Asked how she thought the phone-hacking story would end, Brooks allegedly said: “with Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy”.

It wasn’t just the Murdoch press that was gunning for Davies and the Guardian. Perhaps cowed by News International’s fearsome influence or wowed by its political connections, the police rubbished Davies’s work for years. (The then chief commis­sioner of the Met, Paul Stephenson, described it as “middle-class wank”.) The Press Complaints Commission berated the Guardian. The Crown Prosecution Service said that there was nothing new. Other newspapers didn’t cover it, or simply mocked Davies’s work.

It is this de facto cover-up that enlarges the crime. According to the American investigative reporter Carl Bernstein, the phone-hacking scandal was potentially bigger than Watergate. Voicemail interception was one of Wapping’s more innocuous forms of illegal newsgathering.

However, the police, politicians and the press failed to expose it. In the end, Davies had to rely on the legal process of disclosure during civil actions and a “selection of oddballs” – recalcitrant lawyers, a rogue politician or two – to get the word out. In the attempts of some of its employees to defuse the story, News International exposed its web of influence. There was no need for spoken conspiracies – although the documented number of meetings between News International executives and senior politicians and police officers during this period is staggering. No one wanted to pick a fight with Rupert Murdoch, a man who bought ink by the container shipload.

Hack Attack captures the nature of this power (the fear of “punishment”, the soft inducements and what Davies likens to “whitemail – a favour done, rather than a threat made”) in two impressionistic passages comparing the brutality of Coulson’s tabloid newsroom with the glitterati networking at the marriage of Rebekah and Charlie Brooks in 2009. It reads like a story by F Scott Fitzgerald: the gilded courtiers at the party and the bullying enforcers in the background, digging the dirt with illegal data collection and alleged bribes.

One of the masters of those dark arts, Glenn Mulcaire, or “Dr Evil”, as he ironically calls himself, has collaborated with James Hanning on The News Machine to give an insight into both the methods and the justification for hacking and “blagging”.

Mulcaire is still proud of his role at the News of the World. Under the editorship of Brooks, he thought he was on “God’s business”, tracking down child abductors and terrorists whom the incompetent police had failed to find. He takes particular pride in having helped to name and shame the 49 sex offenders Brooks outed in her “Sarah’s Law” campaign (which also boosted the newspaper’s sales by nearly 100,000).

“I was part of the Murdoch elite, which felt great,” Mulcaire tells Hanning. “The News of the World had a huge circulation and I loved what I was doing.” It was only under Coulson’s editorship that he noticed that the campaigning edge had gone and he was being inundated with low-grade celebrity work. The pressure for stories was so intense that Goodman’s project to target Princes William and Harry for voicemail interception, signed off by Coulson, strayed into “royal airspace”, which resulted in the newspapermen’s arrest.

Hanning, the deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday and David Cameron’s biographer, provides some useful ballast for what could otherwise have been self-serving testimony from Mulcaire. Many of the best chapters in the book – describing the rise of Piers Morgan, Coulson and Brooks, or Cameron’s hiring of Coulson – show Hanning’s astute eye for human frailty.

Yet he doesn’t quite crack Mulcaire as an unreliable witness. There are too many inconsistencies left unchallenged. Mulcaire accepts that he might have been offered a bonus for the hacking of David Blunkett’s phone during his three-year affair with Kimberly Quinn. (The Old Bailey was played the tape of a heartfelt voicemail left by the former home secretary, over which the private detective can be heard saying, “Just say ‘I love you’ and it’s 25 grand.”) But he vehemently denies that he was offered any kind of bonus for hacking Milly Dowler’s phone.

Mulcaire insists that he started phone-hacking for “noble reasons”, and yet, in the same breath, he says he took on many of the requests without knowing who the targets were. He says his wife didn’t know what he was doing, yet she recalls a holiday trip interrupted by a call from the News of the World office and her husband apologising: “I’m sorry we’re doing this for the police.” When the contradictions become untenable, Mulcaire clams up and drops hints of a higher hidden agenda involving the security services. He seems to cloak the real responsibility for what happened.

This is where Mulcaire fits into the broader patterns that Davies identifies. Like many tabloid journalists, Mulcaire might have thought of himself as a Lone Ranger figure, but such investigative outlaws (“droogs”, as Davies calls them) ended up “pulling on the boots of the secret police”.

With more than 100 journalists arrested as a result of the hacking scandal, it is clear that it was a culture that took hold of sections of Fleet Street. It’s no good – as the tabloids do – monstering individuals such as Mulcaire or Coulson. Hannah Arendt’s study of bureaucracy and the “banality of evil” is more appropriate: whatever the individuals’ motives were, they got swept up in an institution that had gained such unaccountable power that it could no longer check itself. Even the Murdochs were victims of their power. Some of the most revelatory chapters of Hack Attack suggest that the catastrophe that overtook News Corp was the result of an apparent breakdown of trust between Rupert and James, with Brooks the compromised go-between.

The one, minor fault with Hack Attack is Davies’s epilogue, in which he diagnoses the malady he has so brilliantly laid bare as “neoliberalism”. Here he falls into the trap of his enemies, who have spent years trying to dismiss and marginalise his work as “typical Guardian”. Davies deserves a much wider constituency than the liberal left. He has exposed the dynamics of monopoly power, which should be of equal concern to the liberal right. Then again, as an investigative journalist, Davies is more intent on changing the world than interpreting it – and the world is a better place for that. 

Peter Jukes’s ebook on the phone-hacking trial, “Beyond Contempt” (Canbury Press, £8.99), is available from: hackingtrial.com

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.