The righteous mind: when reporting on phone-hacking turned into campaigning

The Guardian’s Nick Davies was courageous and correct to expose the practice – but he has crossed the line from reporter to campaigner.

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Defender of Nick's faith: Davies (centre) targets everyone from Coulson (left) to the Mail and Roger Alton (second from right) but find's Rusbridger's paper flawless. Montage: Dan Murrell

Nick Davies is one of the most influential journalists of our age. Without his stamina and forensic skills, the hacking scandal at the News of the World would never have been exposed. Andy Coulson, the paper’s editor before becoming David Cameron’s commu­nications chief, would probably be in No 10 instead of serving an 18-month prison sentence. The Sunday red top would still be read at several million breakfast tables.

For having pursued the hacking scandal so relentlessly on behalf of the Guardian, Davies surely deserves public recognition. Listening to people’s mobile-phone messages, which is what was involved, is not a nice thing to do, as well as being illegal. The same point can be made about bribing public officials, which is alleged to have gone on at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and its sister paper, the Sun. These may not be the most serious crimes in the world, but they are crimes nonetheless, which would have lingered in the dark had it not been for Nick Davies.

Many people will therefore be inclined to regard this resourceful man as an unvarnished hero. I’m afraid I can’t. Despite his prowess in unmasking wrongdoing, I see him in many ways as a destructive figure, consumed by unreasonable hatreds, whose motivation was not only to expose malpractice at the NoW but also to weaken much of the British press, in which task he has succeeded pretty well. I question his sense of fairness and his accuracy – qualities he judges lamentably absent from the tabloid press – and I suggest he has made one calamitous mistake that he has been unable to confront.

Davies has just published Hack Attack (which was reviewed favourably in the NS), an account of his pivotal role in the hacking scandal. It quickly becomes clear from reading the book that the driving force behind his investigations was not a sense of outrage on behalf of the hacking victims, which for the most part is surprisingly muted. No, the fons et origo of his anger is the international media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Often when suffering a setback in his inquiries, he is rejuvenated by recalling what a wicked man Murdoch is.

Admittedly Davies harbours a great deal of dislike for other right-wing titles, particularly the Daily Mail. But his most concentrated hatred is reserved for Murdoch and his newspapers – the Sunday Times and Times and, more especially, the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World. He never finds a good word to say for any of their journalists. It seems not to occur to him that some of them might be decent, hard-working people. They are all damned because they work for a man whom Davies identifies as a monster presiding over a stew of corruption.

In Flat Earth News – an excoriation of Fleet Street published in 2008 – Davies baldly described Murdoch as “a brutal and unscrupulous bully”. And this is how he describes Murdoch’s removal of his newspapers to Wapping in 1986 in Hack Attack. He “threw 6,000 men out of work when he broke away from the printing unions in London”. That’s all! I am old enough to remember the Fleet Street of the early 1980s, as is Davies – the wildcat strikes and sudden stoppages, the grotesque overmanning, the closed shop and the high salaries paid to printers who refused to accept one item of new technology.

The truth is that the print unions had become so intransigent that there was no other way for Murdoch to put his newspapers on a sound financial footing than by a clandestine midnight flit. The rest of Fleet Street, which had been too timid or unimaginative to do what Murdoch did, was able to benefit from his example. Newspapers, including Davies’s Guardian, were saved from bankruptcy or decline. The Independent (in whose founding I had a hand) was launched. Freed from union restrictions, and no longer burdened with astronomical costs, all titles quickly increased their pagination and many sprouted new culture, business and arts sections. Wapping gave the press a vital lease of life.

None of this is even fleetingly conceded by Davies as he unfolds the story of his (ultimately unsuccessful) crusade to pin personal responsibility for phone-hacking on the evil press baron. As he sees it, Murdoch has dictated a political neoliberal agenda in this country since 1979. (In one pretty loopy passage in Hack Attack he lumps together Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet as wicked apostles of neoliberalism without drawing any moral distinction between them.) He points out, rightly, that since 1979 Murdoch has supported the winning party at every general election in Britain – without bothering to ask himself whether the outcome might have been the same had he never existed.

Yet isn’t it significant that, despite the Sun pulling out every conceivable stop for David Cameron during the six months before the 2010 election, the Tories slipped in the opinion polls and failed to win an overall majority? Murdoch may have backed the winning side in eight successive elections but there is a strong argument that, with the possible exception of 1992, he was simply jumping on a bandwagon that was already heading in a particular direction. Politicians of the right and left have consistently exaggerated Murdoch’s power, and have usually deferred to him more than was either desirable or necessary.

Of course there are lots of sound criticisms to be made of Murdoch. (I have made many over years as a media columnist, so it is slightly irritating to be portrayed by Davies as something close to a Murdoch stooge. I might add that I have never met or worked for him.) We now know that the mogul sweet-talked Margaret Thatcher over lunch at Chequers in 1981, making clear his antipathy to the print unions, before the Conservative government bent the rules to allow him to acquire the Times and Sunday Times. This gave him more power in the British press than one proprietor should have had. He abused this in 1993 by initiating a price war, slashing the cover price of the loss-making Times in an attempt to drive the Independent to the wall, in which ploy he largely succeeded. I will never forgive him for that. There are some alarming instances of his trying to exert direct political influence, the most egregious being his three telephone conversations with Tony Blair in the ten days before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

But there are things to be said in Murdoch’s favour, in addition to the Wapping revolution, which Davies entirely ignores. The press baron has spent literally hundreds of millions of pounds keeping alive the Times, which, for all its shortcomings, is not a bad paper. Sky, which Murdoch controls through a large minority stake, has revitalised top-flight football in England. Sky News provides a useful service (and reported on the hacking imbroglio, at least latterly, without sparing Murdoch). There are good dramas on Sky, and Sky Arts gives more support to the arts than either the BBC or ITV. Moreover, it seems to me practically lunatic to condemn every aspect of the News of the World and the Sun, as Davies does. Haven’t these newspapers ever produced stories that have served the public interest, or provided honest entertainment? In writing them off so comprehensively Davies dismisses the many millions of his fellow countrymen who have bought and read them and, in the case of the Sun, continue to do so.

It might be argued that Davies’s overriding motivation – his quest to nail the hated Murdoch – is irrelevant because he exposed phone-hacking. If that had been his only ambition, I would be his greatest fan. But it wasn’t. In both Flat Earth News and Hack Attack Davies reveals a near-total contempt for the British press. He despises most journalists and hates most newspapers. He doesn’t express a single word of sympathy for innocent Sun hacks hauled out of bed and arrested by the police at the crack of dawn, or for those who have been kept on police bail for many months without charge. Only the Guardian is on the side of the angels, the chief reason being that it does not have to make money, as it has a huge trust fund behind it. (He doesn’t say so, but the Guardian has haemorrhaged more than £100m over the past three years.) By contrast, the Murdoch papers and most of the rest of the press inhabit a grimy commercial world in which the need to generate profits encourages them to publish sensational or downright mendacious stories.

Only a fool would deny that British newspapers have their weaknesses. I have spent the past 20 years drawing attention to them as a media columnist. Flat Earth News made some strong points about the increasing dependence of cash-strapped newspapers on government spoon-feeding, PR agencies and wire copy, which they cheerfully incorporate into stories, sometimes without the most cursory fact-checking. But in both books Davies grossly exaggerates their failings, and misrepresents them in a way that would bring a blush to the face of the most slapdash red-top hack.

Rather unexpectedly, the Observer, which is the Guardian’s sister paper, comes in for the heaviest drubbing in Flat Earth News, probably because Davies had a personal animus against its former editor Roger Alton, a former Guardian executive who now works on the Times. He plausibly suggests that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were keen to win the support of the usually left-leaning Observer in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Davies then makes the extremely serious allegation that in the autumn of 2002 Alton lifted chunks from emails sent by Campbell into the paper’s leaders. The Observer came out unequivocally in favour of military action in January 2003, to the shock of many on the left.

As it happens, I am in Davies’s camp in decrying the war rather than in Alton’s, but that is beside the point. Davies makes virtually the most heinous accusation one could make against an editor. He alleges that Alton (whom he characterises as a political dimwit) was spoon-fed by the Blair government. You might think he would only level such a grave charge if he had a quotation, or a named source or two in support, but he hasn’t. All he offers are shreds of tittle-tattle or hearsay, which may have been supplied to him by a single, unidentified source who disliked Alton.

In a similar way, he makes several unsubstantiated charges against the Daily Mail in Flat Earth News. Probably most damaging, from the Mail’s point of view, is the assertion that the paper is racist. One young man said to have worked on the paper for a year is quoted as saying: “You’d often hear people using the word nigger or nig-nog.” I have written a column for the Mail for 16 years, going into and moving around its office most weeks, and I have never heard anyone making a comment that could be remotely compared to what Davies’s unnamed source alleges. I simply don’t believe it. Unsurprisingly, he brushes aside the paper’s successful campaign to bring the murderers of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence to justice as being of little significance. He will never give the Mail credit for anything because he abhors its politics and disdains its readers, whom he twice sneers at for being “lower middle class”.

Davies, so eager to judge the tabloids deficient in their working practices, continually relies on unnamed sources who obligingly attack his enemies. It is as though he and his paper can do no wrong because they are engaged in God’s work – discrediting Murdoch and the rest of the commercial press. So it is that in Flat Earth News
he approvingly describes the close relationship between his friend and colleague David Leigh and Benjamin Pell (“Benjy the Binman”), who had a penchant for digging through the waste bins of celebrities and public figures. In 1998 Benjy approached the Guardian with paperwork he had found in a lawyer’s bin relating to the former Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken and two powerful Saudis.

And why not? It doesn’t worry me. The point is that Benjy was paid a small amount by Leigh, who, in return for continuing revelations about the contents of dustbins, passed him on to a friend who would help him to sell the information to newspapers that paid better rates. The Guardian can justify such arrangements because it is virtuous. Davies chides me in Hack Attack for having pointed out in the Independent that in 1999 the Guardian engaged a private investigator to obtain information about the multinational agricultural company Monsanto. This was, in my view, a perfectly reasonable thing to have done, though if you employ outside agencies such as private investigators you cannot maintain control over the methods they use.

Davies’s conviction of his moral superiority and exceptionalism enables him to discount a momentous mistake he made in July 2011. A series of pieces about phone-hacking had raised the tempo and led to the departure of Andy Coulson from No 10. But Davies had still not produced the knockout blow that he hoped would floor Murdoch. On 5 July the Guardian’s front page carried the bombshell headline “News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone during police hunt”. There was a strapline beneath: “Exclusive Paper deleted missing schoolgirl’s voicemails, giving the family false hope”. As Davies writes, “there was a white flash and a mighty explosion”. Within days David Cameron announced the Leveson inquiry, which turned out to be an investigation into “the culture, practice and ethics of the press” – not just the News of the World – and the Sunday red top was closed by a panic-stricken Rupert Murdoch.

The trouble was that the strapline was wrong. Five months later the Guardian published a correction stating that “the News of the World is unlikely to have been responsible for the deletion of a set of voicemails from the phone that caused Milly Dowler’s parents to have false hope that she was still alive”. Davies wrote an analysis in his paper in which he blithely referred to “new evidence” without conceding that he had got anything wrong. The same absence of contrition, or any admission of error, is evident in Hack Attack when he writes: “Months later, new evidence surfaced and cast serious doubt on the last point [the allegation that the NoW had deleted the mails] but at the time it was supported by the evidence that was available.” This is casuistry.

Let’s imagine the Sun had made an accusation of this magnitude which turned out to be false. I’m sure Davies would cite it as another example of the paper’s dysfunctionality. Of course, it goes without saying that the News of the World had no business listening to Milly Dowler’s voicemails. It was a disgraceful thing to have done. But it was the suggestion that the paper had deliberately deleted them, and cold-heartedly misled Milly’s parents into thinking she was still alive, which lit the torch paper and enraged the public. If Davies had got the original story right, the NoW might still be published, and I question whether there would have been such a far-ranging inquiry into the entire press. We all get things wrong, and I can forgive him more easily for his mistake, huge though it was, than for his refusal to face up to it.

The Leveson inquiry was the triumphant fulfilment of Davies’s dreams and the direct consequence of his brilliant but ultimately destructive campaign to bring down Murdoch – a campaign that involved not merely writing the stories but prepping and orchestrating the lawyers of hacking victims, and even teaming up with the Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, who loathed the News of the World for having exposed his orgies. Lord Justice Leveson’s criticisms of the tabloid press (“a culture of reckless and outrageous journalism”) could have been borrowed from the pages of Flat Earth News. Some of them were justified. However, what journalists such as myself wonder is why the excesses of the press cannot be dealt with by the criminal and civil law, as in the case that led to the recent jailing of Andy Coulson and his two NoW colleagues.

Notwithstanding Leveson’s claim that he was not proposing a statutory body to control the press, many people and institutions have disagreed with him, including Index on Censorship. The royal charter envisaged by the three main parties could be dissolved and reconstituted by a two-thirds majority of parliament. For the first time in 300 years politicians are seriously contemplating the beginnings of some sort of state oversight of newspapers, though most of the press is resisting by setting up its own body, which will have nearly all the draconian powers recommended by Leveson.

Davies might perhaps not object to being described as an unreconstructed Guardian lefty. What is surprising to me is that such a person should distrust Rupert Murdoch and the tabloid press far more than he does the state. After the publication of Flat Earth News Davies was interviewed by the online blog the Third Estate. He raised with apparent approval the idea of the government introducing “a kind of licence fee for news media”. I suspect that his ideal world would not be a pluralistic one in which people were free to read newspapers he despised, but a circumspect and regulated one where such few titles as existed would closely resemble the Guardian.

The irony is that Nick Davies has been hunting down a pretty feeble creature. British newspapers are shrivelling. The profitable ones are making much less money than they used to, and the loss-making ones are struggling. While newsprint sales decline inexorably, growing online audiences do not begin to make up for the lost revenues. The once-mighty Sun is a pale reflection of what it was; not that this will worry the remorseless Davies, who in a characteristically supercilious phrase described the tabloid to the Third Estate as “a source of repulsively dishonest journalism”.

And yet Rupert Murdoch – the object of Davies’s hatred, the reason for his crusade – thrives and prospers, as the author concedes at the end of Hack Attack. Corporate profits are up. Talk of his being arraigned in the United States over phone-hacking has subsided. He is 83, and God will intervene sooner or later, but for the time being the so-called Sun King has left Britain with its crumbling, cowed and increasingly regulated newspapers far behind. 

Stephen Glover was a co-founder of the Independent and founding editor of the Independent on Sunday 

This article appears in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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