Those who saw Rupert Murdoch’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry last week will know that the Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corp is choosy about his reading material – so selective in fact that Lord Justice Leveson felt the need to send the 81-year-old billionaire away with some homework (reading the Mosley judgment).
It came as no surprise then that, when Counsel to the Inquiry Robert Jay QC referred to the book during questioning of the magnate last Thursday, his riposte was: “I’m not planning on reading it.”
As well as being excellent publicity, this was a fitting response from the Murdoch camp to a book which, in vivid detail and with cinematic breadth, charts how Nelsonian blindness afflicting News International and its friends in the Establishment allowed the growth of “a shadow state” that would stop at nothing in pursuit of its commercial interests.
In 22 fast-paced and pithy chapters based on highly detailed research, Dial M draws together the fragmented pieces of ‘the worst scandal in British public life in decades’ to fit the jigsaw together. For anyone who missed any episodes of “The Hacking Scandal” that has now played out on our screens for many years, Dial M is the Omnibus edition.
The result is a highly readable and entertaining piece of journalism which charts the scandal from its early origins in the ‘dark arts’ of private detectives in the 1990s to the discovery in late 2005 that Prince William’s voicemails were being intercepted, the Met’s Operation Weeting, the arrest and imprisonment of Goodman and Mulcaire in 2006 and the ensuing corporate cover-up. After a cosy ‘inter-regnum’ by the Chipping Norton set, the pace quickens again with The Guardian’s 2009 revelations that hacking had been widespread and its explosive 2011 revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, the dramatic closure of The News of the World, the withdrawal of the BSkyB bid and the unprecedented summoning of the Murdochs to Parliament.
Should the book ever get past Wendi Deng onto her husband’s bedside table in their Mayfair apartment, he may find it hard to put down.
The book opens with Murdoch’s Range Rover sweeping into the House of Commons ‘for his first appointment with British democracy’ on 19 July 2011 when, looking ‘pale and diminished on the white upholstery of his four-wheel drive’ he arrived for questioning about the hacking scandal by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee (of which Tom Watson was a prominent member).
Given Murdoch’s return to London to give evidence last week – only this time to the Leveson Inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice – the contemporary relevance of the book could not be higher. Of all the well-timed book launches, this has to be among the best. It also rather uncannily foreshadows the future – now present – furore surrounding the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s handling of the BSkyB bid. No doubt the authors have popped several corks in recent days over their decision to include in Chapter 11 the full text of a letter that Watson wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell on 23 December 2010 quizzing him repeatedly about relations between News Corp, Jeremy Hunt and Adam Smith and other aspects of the Cameron – Murdoch love-in.
After opening on the spider at the centre of the web, the book relegates the master weaver to the shadows and the focus switches to an army of major and minor characters spinning between different locations and time-frames. In a nod to Frederick Knott’s stage play on which Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder was based, a list of Dramatis Personae sets out the main cast of News Corp executives, journalists, senior Met officers, private detectives, lawyers, politicians (including Watson) and litigants. Last but not least come the journalists – led by The Guardian and Nick Davies – to whose dogged persistence the book is something of a grateful testament. Watson’s references to himself in the third person do at times grate – but his inclusion of the insults that Murdoch’s cronies have levelled at him over the years (‘tub of lard’, ‘Mad Dog’, ‘fat bastard’) drown out any hint of self-importance.
The audience is not disappointed: we come across Rebekah Wade (as she then was) dressed as a cleaner hiding in a toilet at Wapping in 1994 (to obtain a copy of The Sunday Times’ serialisation of Dimbleby’s book about Prince Charles), Neville Thurlbeck caught pleasuring himself at a naturist Devon guesthouse and Alan Rushbridger receiving a toilet roll by post.
The scene is set with ‘the sleazy drink fuelled atmosphere’ at The News of the World which caused a senior executive to comment that he felt like taking a shower after walking through it. We hear how, in his 1990s heyday Clive Goodman was dubbed ‘the eternal flame’ for never going out of the office on a story – for reasons which later became disturbingly clear. We see him lording it around the newsroom with ‘rarefied airs, wearing Savile Row suits, tweeds and occasionally a fob chain and monacle’. Snippets of banter convey the arrogance of the Morgan, Coulson and Wade editorship years. We hear Morgan cockily asking his lawyer: “How many fingers will it cost if we nick it all?”, see Rebekah Wade forcing a reporter to dress as Harry Potter in the office and Coulson suspend a journalist in a perspex box in the newsroom for 24 hours to emulate a stunt by the magician David Blaine. It might have seemed funny at the time, but later we see how lives were ruined, and ended, by the pressures.
The story roars on to the discovery of royal voicemail hacking, the lacklustre Operation Caryatid and the arrest and conviction of Goodman and Mulcaire in 2006. This minor inconvenience is shown not to have distracted the ‘Chipping Norton set’ from its social whirl in the ‘Cotswold Triangle’ (illustrated by a map) encompassing within a few miles the Brooks’ country home in Churchill, David Cameron’s retreat in Dean and Elisabeth Murdoch and Matthew Freud’s pile, Burford Priory. But (in a technique that pervades the book and makes excellent use of hindsight), the music abruptly stops as we cut from Elisabeth’s grand summer party on 2 July 2011 to the following Monday when The Guardian broke the Milly Dowler hacking story.
Interestingly, in Chapter 17, at the height of the drama when the ‘Dirty Digger’ meets Bob and Sally Dowler to apologise for the hacking of their murdered daughter’s phone, the authors choose to give Murdoch a human face. He is described, in the words of his Nemesis, the Dowlers’ lawyer Mark Lewis as: “very humbled and very shaken and very sincere”, Lewis adding “I think this was something that had hit him on a very personal level…I don’t think somebody could have held their head in their hands so many times and say that they were sorry.” Not for the first time it feels as though elements of Shakespeare are creeping into the tale of King Rupert: a grumpy and dictatorial Patriarch gradually abandoned by his off-spring who becomes increasingly vulnerable and (so he would have it) obliged to rely on the counsel of fools. Despite the up-to-the-minute subject matter, this is a book that explores timeless and classical themes involving the rise and fall of the powerful, loyalty, betrayal and hubris.
But despite its weighty themes, the touch is kept light with punchy and colourful language and a series of memorable vignettes. Neil Wallis is ‘a grinning chancer’ with ‘a volcanic temper’, Andy Coulson is ‘neat, calm and polite but had cold eyes and hard edges’ whilst James Murdoch seems as if he is ‘trapped in a Masters of Business Administration presentation’ and Sir John Stephenson is ‘a Lancastrian former shoe salesman with a reputation for straight talking’.
The level of detail pays off to give precious insights into a closed world. In Chapter 16, as the The News of the World prints its last edition and the reporters leave, “In line with Fleet Street tradition (when printers used to whack their hammers against metal benches to mark the departure of a colleague), Myler ‘banged out’ each journalist, clattering a plastic ruler against a desk…” From a proud printing tradition to a pathetic plastic ruler – how the mighty are fallen.
This attention to detail and lively language, often redolent of or quoted from the tabloids, creates a sense of relish on the part of the authors – a relish which, dare I say it, is shared by those not directly affected – that notwithstanding the acute pain, suffering and damage caused by the phone hacking scandal, its consummate dastardly dreadfulness makes a cracking read. All we need now is the film …
Athalie Matthews is an associate in the Media and Information Law department at Bindmans LLP