According to most British newspapers, the Leveson Inquiry was a complete waste of time and money, based on the false premise that in 2002 News of the World employees deleted messages on Milly Dowler’s phone by hacking into it, thereby cruelly giving her parents the impression that she was still alive.
And the subsequent hacking trial was an even bigger waste which simply proved what everyone knew already, namely that phone hacking at the paper was the work of a few rogue reporters and the private investigators that they employed. But for anyone who wants to know the truth behind this poisonous fog of disinformation, this blanket of self-serving propaganda, Nick Davies’ Hack Attack is an absolute must-read. And one of the major conclusions to be drawn from it is that the sooner the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry takes place, that involving the relationship between the police and the press, the better.
For those who have followed the Guardian’s quite remarkably dogged and tenacious pursuit of the truth about phone hacking since July 2009, much (though by no means everything) in Hack Attack will be familiar. However, it is extraordinarily useful to have all the elements of this highly complex story brought together so comprehensively and lucidly, and also to have them narrated in such a riveting fashion. Furthermore, Davies intersperses his narrative with lengthy passages, indeed whole chapters, which put the events of the story into their wider context, so that the NoW comes across as a microcosm of the Murdoch empire, which in turn illustrates much about both the state of modern Britain and the workings of global media corporations in a neo-liberal age.
As Davies puts it, this is a story about ‘the secret world of the power elite and their discreet alliances’, one which illustrates the ‘abuse of power and the secrets and lies that protect it’. He continues: ‘In an established democracy, abuse of power cannot afford to be visible. It needs concealment like a vampire needs the dark … In this case, the concealment had an extra layer, because news organisations which might otherwise have exposed the truth were themselves part of the abuse’. What Davies aptly calls this ‘alliance of silence’ is one of the most revealing and disturbing aspects of the phone hacking story. If the press is supposed to be the public’s watchdog over those in power, as it constantly claims to be, why did most journalists remain silent about this story?
In his view, some did so ‘because they were linked to the crime by common ownership or by their own guilty secrets about the lawbreaking in their own newsrooms; some turned away for fear of upsetting their political allies. Too many journalists had simply ceased to function as independent truth-tellers, separate from and critical of the people they were writing about. The crime reporter made common cause with the police and also with criminals. The political correspondent developed a loyalty to one party or faction. The media reporter became a tool for his or her owner. The news executive turned into a preening power-monger, puffed with wealth and self-importance, happy to join the elite and not to expose it’. This is a powerful malediction on the state of modern journalism, one which goes way beyond the specific evil of phone hacking.
One of the most revealing examples in Hack Attack of the ‘alliance of silence’ concerns the four journalists at the Mail on Sunday who, in 2006, were among the very few people informed by Operation Caryatid that their phones had been hacked. Neither that paper nor the Mail published a word about it. Neither the editor of the Mail on Sunday, Peter Wright, nor the editor of the Mail, Paul Dacre, informed the Press Complaints Commission of this fact. And yet, not only was Dacre a member of the PCC till 2008, when he was replaced by Wright, but in 2007 and 2009 the PCC produced two reports which supported the NoW’s contention that phone hacking was the work of one rogue reporter and had involved very few victims. So much for the press as watchdog and the PCC as regulator. Wright has now finally broken his silence – but merely in order to attack Davies and Roy Greenslade for drawing the obvious lesson from this story!
The silence of the press was compounded by inaction and, at times, obstruction, by the police. Davies suggests a number of reasons for this. First of all, the culture of secrecy that bedevils so many British institutions: ‘the casual, routine assumption among those responsible for the Yard’s public face that even though this was a police force acting on behalf of the public, spending public money and enforcing those laws agreed by those elected by the public, there was nothing controversial about keeping the public in the dark. Power and secrecy walk hand in hand. Power enjoys secrecy, because it increases its scope’.
Second, the extremely close relationships between senior members of the Met and the Murdoch empire. To take but a few examples. In 2005 the deputy editor of the NoW, Neil Wallis (known at the paper as the ‘rasping fuckwit’), arranged for the retiring commissioner, Sir John Stevens, to write a weekly column for the paper, for which he was paid up to £7,000, even though Wallis ghosted it. After assistant commissioner Andy Hayman left the Met in 2007 he was given a regular column in The Times, to whom he also sold the serial rights to his memoirs.
In the months following the Guardian’s first phone-hacking story in 2009, the commissioner of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson, its director of communications Dick Fedorcio, and assistant commissioner, John Yates, wined and dined with senior figures from the NoW at least ten times – and Scotland Yard hired Wallis as their media consultant. As Davies puts it: ‘This was about cosiness, the easy assumption that News International was a friendly and respectable organisation to be cultivated, rather than an organisation which might be routinely engaged in illegal activity and which needed to be brought to book’. Such cosiness did not extend to the Guardian, which on several occasions was treated by senior police officers as it were the wrongdoer. Moreover, one of the paper’s crime correspondents was told by Stephenson that the whole story was a ‘load of middle-class wank’.
Third, when the police finally got round, after four years, to taking phone hacking seriously, they were severely obstructed by the Murdoch empire – and on at least two occasions physically prevented by NoW staff from doing their job. Fourth, to begin with at least, they were hampered by lack of resources, and presumably knew exactly what kind of press coverage they would receive if staff were diverted from investigating suspected terrorists to investigating journalists.
Fortunately not all journalism has been reduced to this debased state, as Nick Davies’ work, and the Guardian’s support for it, amply prove. But Davies is under no illusions about the consequences of his exposure of the hacking scandal. Truth did indeed catch up with power for a while, but the power elite whose machinations the scandal exposed, are still firmly in place. An important battle was won, but the war has barely begun.
“Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch“, Chatto and Windus, £20.
This review originally appeared in Free Press, the journal of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and is reproduced with permission and thanks