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Review: Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Tom Watson’s lonely quest for the truth about hacking.

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain

Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Allen Lane, 384pp, £20

In October 2011, Tom Watson entered my house an MP. An hour later, he emerged a best-selling author.

The incendiary claim that News International had ordered News of the World reporters to spy on MPs in order to dredge up unsavoury facts about their private lives is one of the few new revelations in this book, co-written by Watson with the Independent journalist Martin Hickman. To a newspaper man like me, it is a very useful and, by and large, accurate reference book about the unfolding of the phone-hacking saga. It’s what we call in the trade “a cuttings job”, produced by piecing together ­information that can be found in any good newspaper-cuttings library.

The result is the first substantial account of what happened before and after the disclosure of the now infamous “For Neville” email. This was a message intended for me. Its discovery led to the closure of a 168-year-old newspaper.

Watson’s subject is of huge importance to many people – especially the News of the World’s eight million former readers and the 270 journalists who worked there. And, as a work of reference, this book does a good job. But there is little attempt to convey to the reader precisely how the crisis unfolded inside the walls of News International’s headquarters at Wapping. 

We learn a lot about the toll the crisis took on Watson, on his marriage and on his mental state. But it was Watson’s visit to my home last year that provided him with the book’s most dramatic revelation. The information was given to him confidentially and should not have been made public. However, our quarrel over that need not detain us here.

Realising I had handed him his best new ­angle, Watson printed it and news of his book deal hit the headlines. So the public now knows that, at the height of the hacking scandal, News of the World reporters were despatched to spy round the clock on the members of the culture, media and sport committee. The objective was to find as much embarrassing sleaze on as many members as possible in order to blackmail them into backing off from its highly forensic inquiry into phone-hacking .

It was a plan hatched not by the News of the World but by several executives at News International – up the corridor in “Deepcarpetland”, as the area staffed by managers and pen-pushers was known. And it failed because the reporters had grave reservations, so dithered and procrastinated. It wasn’t journalism, it was corporate espionage. Ten days later, the plot was cancelled.

Another startling revelation is that the office of News International’s former chief executive Rebekah Brooks was bugged in June last year, as the hacking crisis reached fever pitch. Watson and Hickman write: 

According to one well-placed News Corp source, security staff were ordered to record the times of Brooks’ entry to and exit from Thomas More Square [News International’s HQ] and cleaners were warned to avoid disturbing listening devices placed under the table and by her computer in her office.

I doubt this. The “well-placed source” apparently isn’t sufficiently well-placed to tell us who authorised this bugging. Whether it was News International, the News of the World or the police, none of these institutions would have been so half-witted as to inform the cleaners – a friendly bunch of ladies, mostly from Bermondsey, who were rather chatty, to say the very least.

The book certainly lives up to the suggestion of Hitchcockian melodrama in the title, rattling out tales of bugging, hacking, spying, blackmail and, en passant, murder. It also records in minute detail Watson’s lonely and obsessive quest to crack the phone-hacking scandal – the long walks on the moors, the long letters to ­officials, the long wait in the wilderness.

This is where Watson and Hickman lose their lightness of touch and the book becomes less a thrilling read and more a summary of information that is already a matter of record. It also strains to make sinister connections between the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and a PI named Jonathan Rees, a man who had served time for conspiring to pervert the course of justice and had been facing a murder charge (from which he was later acquitted after the case was abandoned).

The following bold claim is made: “Coulson had worked with a notorious private investigator at the News of the World after the man’s release from a long prison term for conspiring to pervert the course of justice.” I don’t think Coulson had ever heard of Rees, let alone worked with him. The latter was hired from time to time by another executive and I ­wouldn’t expect an editor to be familiar with every one of the thousands of people who passed through the paper’s books. Others, though, may take a different view.

Dial M for Murdoch is also littered with inaccuracies. We are told that David Cameron was able to get close to the Times’s editor, James Harding, because he knew him from their Eton days. He didn’t. Harding went to St Paul’s. Watson and Hickman claim I was caught fornicating with a Dorset couple. I wasn’t. Their allegations were investigated by News International management and the Press Complaints Commission and I was exonerated. A video of my exploits appeared on the internet, they write, “to the amusement of colleagues”. It didn’t. It is alleged I live in a semi-detached house. I don’t.

But despite this sometimes careless disregard for the facts, the authors manage, just, not to strain the reader’s credulity to breaking point. But the central claim of the book – that “Rupert Murdoch was not running a normal business, but a shadow state” – is barely justified. It’s eye-catching, certainly, but, like most hyperbole, meaningless. We are given no evidence to back it up.

 Instead, running in tandem with the story of Watson’s dogged quest, we are presented with a detailed account of how the Guardian’s Nick Davies conducted an investigation that finally exploded News International’s “rogue reporter” defence. The bullish determination of the lawyer Mark Lewis to discover the scale of phone-hacking through the courts is also given due weight.

However, the portrayal of News of the World staff is weak, betraying a serious lack of insider contacts. And this shortcoming leaves the reader with very little sense of the desperate rearguard action fought behind the scenes at the News of the World last summer as events spiralled out of its control. 

But, for the moment, Dial M for Murdoch is the only cogent book available on the most important media story since the birth of newspapers and has every chance of becoming a bestseller. It is only half the story because only half the story has been told. Its sequel will be the explosive revelations that will be made in court, should any trials take place. And then the drama of Cuttings Job II will ensure this book is swiftly remaindered.

We were promised Graham Greene. What we get is Agatha Christie. And after 328 pages, we still don’t know whodunnit.

Neville Thurlbeck is a former news editor and chief reporter at the News of the World. He was dismissed by News International in September 2011, and is pursuing a claim of unfair dismissal

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue