The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07


Phone hacking 2009-11

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Nick Davies describes how he led an investigation that lifted the lid on the excesses of tabloid journalism, shocked the public, shook Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the establishment to their core, and also signalled the end of the road for the News of the World Iused to work for the Guardian as a freelance, from my home in Sussex. In late June 2009, I made a rare trip into the office, and over lunch with the then editor, Alan Rusbridger, I told him I’d been working for months on a story that would start a fight with the most powerful media group in the country, the most powerful political party, the most powerful police force and, for good measure, the official press regulator. There are plenty of editors who would have walked away and left me to pay the lunch bill. Rusbridger was never scared of a fight. He sent the investigations editor, David Leigh, to see me at home a few days later, to check and recheck the detail of what I had found. The legal director, Gill Phillips, checked it all again. And on the afternoon of Wednesday 8 July, the Guardian posted on its website a news story and a long feature that disclosed Rupert Murdoch’s UK company had paid out £1m to silence legal actions that threatened to disclose that some of his journalists at the News of the World had been using criminal means to get information, including hacking into the voicemail messages of thousands of people; that Scotland Yard and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had failed to deal with this; and that the editor who presided over the crime was now the right-hand man to the Conservative leader, David Cameron, who very likely would be the next prime minister. If you poke a tiger with a stick, it’s going to snarl at you. We understood that. Still, I think none of us foresaw the tide of hostility, harassment, denial and dishonesty that swept over us. Within 48 hours, Murdoch’s company accused us of deliberately misleading the public, Scotland Yard told the world that we had got it wrong and a group of Conservative MPs summoned Rusbridger and me to be questioned and potentially demolished by the House of Commons select committee responsible for the media. The PCC soon joined in with a rejection of everything we had said. Equally, none of us foresaw that when finally that opening story was confirmed in all its detail – after the Guardian had published more than a hundred follow-ups – this would lead to seven different police inquiries, the criminal conviction of about 30 public officials and of eight senior journalists, several of whom pleaded guilty; plus the resignation of the chief executive and the former chief executive of Murdoch’s UK company, the commissioner and the assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, the prime minister’s right-hand man and the chair of the PCC. I ended up working on the phone-hacking scandal for seven years. There were times when it was exhausting, partly because of the intensity of the work but also because that tide of aggression kept on coming – legal threats, tabloid smear stories, rumours of surveillance, plenty more denial. The secret of our survival was that a lot of people had had enough of Murdoch’s newspapers abusing their power. A network of allies formed around us. Some very sharp lawyers sued on behalf of famous clients who had suffered from the News of the World’s foul play. Some of those famous clients themselves stepped forward and spoke out, at the risk of a lifetime of tabloid harassment. Several MPs took the same risk and openly defied Murdoch’s political power. Behind the scenes, there were police officers, Whitehall officials, tabloid journalists and private investigators who helped us with important information. From my personal point of view, I was physically alone in my study at home, but always I had the Guardian behind me. Phillips and the legal department stepped forward like bodyguards to take the force of the hostile legal actions. Leigh acted as a kind of mentor. Other reporters joined the investigation. Rusbridger never retreated even when senior police visited him with a forceful word in his ear to drop the story. So we won. And yet we lost. We won the battle to prove our story was true. We exposed a cottage industry of crime and abuse. The subsequent public inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson was a breathtaking exposure of life in the corridors of power. And yet, Leveson’s report was buried under an avalanche of falsehood and distortion engineered by the very organisations he was hoping to reform. The tabloid press marches on, still spilling misinformation and spite into the mainstream of British life. It would be great to get into a time machine, buzz forward 200 years to discover they had gone and that the Guardian was still alive and thriving. Maybe.



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