by DAVID CARR AUG. 14, 2014
In the United States, most of us fall for the movie version of Britain — horsy, obsessed with propriety and full of hard stares of unfulfilled longing between the genders. And then there is the Britain of Nick Davies’s “Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch.”
This version is less Jolly Olde England than a country gone mad, drunk on prerogative, a tiny treehouse of a place where people lie just for practice and trash the law for sport and gain. There is so much excess and human pathology on display here, it makes “Bonfire of the Vanities” seem restrained.
The book traces Davies’s three-year campaign to bring to account News Corporation and its British subsidiary News International, along with its owners, the Murdochs, and various enablers in Britain. It is a travelogue of a relentless pursuit, detailing how Davies, an investigative journalist, refused to accept the common wisdom of the political, media and law-enforcement establishment that hacking at the Murdoch-owned News of the World — breaking into the voice mail messages of public and private figures — was an isolated instance of tabloid excess. As it turned out, the practice was exceedingly common and casually deployed to create villains in order to sell papers and, when it was useful, to persecute enemies of the Murdoch empire. The Britain that emerges in “Hack Attack” is a festering petri dish where, as Davies puts it, “everything is for sale. Nobody is exempt.”
While Davies is a populist and a partisan who loves catching out the rich and punishing elites, he clearly believes that the common folk of Britain have gotten exactly the government and media they deserve. Not only are they willing to lay down a hard-earned quid for one of the tatty papers Murdoch and much of the rest of Fleet Street sell, but the voice mail and email boxes of those newspapers are always jammed with proffers from waiters, hotel clerks and trainers who are more than eager to spill dirt for a few pounds. If, as Janet Malcolm has said, journalists are always selling someone out, the public in Britain seems happy to serve as their wingmen. In that cultural context, the hacking of phones on an enormous scale by The News of the World, Britain’s most popular newspaper, seems like just one more part of how business gets done in a country where the cruelty of the press is chronic and callous.
There’s a long, florid history of tabloid excess in Britain, hardly restricted to the Murdoch-owned papers. This part of the tale began in 2006, when Clive Goodman, the royals editor at The News of the World, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator the newspaper had hired, were arrested and charged with hacking the phones of the British royal family. The pair eventually pleaded guilty and went to prison, and Andy Coulson, the editor of The News of the World at the time, resigned. News Corporation officials insisted it was an isolated incident spawned by a rogue reporter, an assertion that turned Davies into something of a rogue himself because he knew better.
On July 8, 2009, Davies published the first of what would be many articles in The Guardian about the extent of hacking at The News of the World, writing that News Corporation had paid out more than £1 million to settle hacking cases that would have led to embarrassing exposures, and pointedly noting that Coulson, by then the Conservative leader David Cameron’s communications director, had served as deputy editor and then editor of The News of the World while much of the hacking had gone on. There were many attempts to knock down and minimize the story, but working in concert with the attorneys of several victims, Davies published a series of reports over the next few years suggesting that hacking was rife and that knowledge of the practice went right to the top of the newspapers and the political establishment.
As an old hand in journalism, Davies knew the dimensions of the cesspool and was more than willing to stand in the muck for years to figure out what was at the bottom. He is, as it turns out, just the kind of person you don’t want to have on your tail. It’s less about his strategic brilliance and more about an innate refusal to give up — ever. That which cannot be known is precisely what Davies wants to know, over and over again. He wages a ground war to get at the truth, which comes less in one single “aha” moment than as a slow drip of facts penetrating a tissue of lies. Evidence is destroyed just before he gets his hands on it, the police redact documents so as to denude them of value. Then, just in the nick of time, a confidential source or secret document arrives. In that sense, the book moves right along, from cliffhanger to cliffhanger.