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.
Davies is, as these things often go, the lonely hero of his own telling, though Alan Rusbridger, the bespectacled editor of The Guardian, is given credit for backing him when others thought he was a bit off his rocker. But as is frequently the case in books by investigative reporters, everything the editor made him leave out of his coverage for the sake of clarity and narrative momentum now becomes string for the book. And since every misdemeanor is a potential felony to Davies, he chases them all down. However, those exhausting tendencies are really not a deal breaker for the reader, given how good a story Davies uncovered and now is in a position to tell.
For a time that story seemed stuck, but then in September 2010, The New York Times Magazine published an article that included on-the-record confirmation, by former News of the World reporters, of widespread hacking. Much of the British press were bystanders to a huge story that took place right in their midst. Davies’s depiction of Fleet Street, and in particular the thuggish deputies who ran The News of the World, is great industry portraiture. It was a hellish place, where editors waved magic wands until reporters made stories come true. The fairness of that reporting was so much beside the point that the question barely arose. British journalism is a ferociously competitive industry where success is measured on the newsstand and in getting consumers to part with their money. As such, it is a place of campaigns, with targets caricatured to the point that much of any given newspaper seems like a comics page.
The brutal pressure to win in the British press, to get the story no matter what, has curdled the civic impulse of journalism into something far more bloody and less enlightening. Or as Davies pithily explains it, “In the newsroom without boundaries, there was one thing which was not tolerated: failure.”
Hypocrisy is a frequent star of this book. The popular press was going after all manner of public peccadilloes even as journalists spent their own nights drinking, drugging and sleeping with one another. Police officers buried evidence because they were either on the take or had cozy relationships with News International that led to their own columns in the newspapers after they retired.
“Hack Attack” is a very British book, to the good, I think. It teaches the reader a whole new lexicon of skulduggery. Politicians who fail to support the editorial line of the Murdoch newspapers are “monstered,” their personal lives taken apart with an amalgam of facts, lies and trumped-up scandal. The toolbox of the sleazy reporter includes “blagging,” “muppeting” and “double whacking.” Without getting bogged down in the tawdry details, all involved various degrees of false identities and impersonation. The cloak-and-dagger activities of the lawyers and journalists pursuing the Murdoch empire make for delicious reading, as when the attorneys routinely pull the batteries out of their phones when they meet to discuss strategy.
This unseemly state of affairs might have continued to this day were it not for Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who had gone missing and was found dead. The voice message case had been motoring along under the radar as various sports and entertainment celebrities sued, and were sometimes paid off, for instances of hacking. But all that changed in July 2011 when it came out in The Guardian that The News of the World had hired investigators to hack Milly Dowler’s voice mail messages. (At the time, Davies got a significant fact wrong, which he acknowledges in the book, by reporting that agents of The News of the World, while hacking, had erased a voice mail message.)
Whereas hacking royals and various celebrities may have been a bit of good old-fashioned fun, there was a huge public outcry over the news that a murdered child and a bereaved family were targeted. The uproar engaged heretofore indifferent public officials and compromised police officers sitting on a huge mound of hacking evidence. Other newspapers jumped in, and News International found itself in the middle of a scandal that could no longer be contained. The News of the World was shuttered, a hugely important bid for the satellite broadcaster BSkyB was scuttled and eventually Rupert Murdoch was forced to spin off his beloved newspapers to contain that damage.
Coulson ended up paying dearly for encouraging and tolerating hacking with a guilty finding, but his predecessor at The News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, who went on to edit another Murdoch publication, The Sun, and to run his British newspaper operation, was acquitted on all charges. She is, in Davies’s account, the white whale, always just out of reach and eluding the various harpoons he lobs at her. Perhaps it is a quirk of British justice, and great lawyering, that she got away.
In the book, she comes off as a particularly ambitious, particularly British version of the professional social climber. She is an extremely cinematic character, menacing various politicians about their extramarital affairs even as she has her own with Coulson. As an editor, Brooks went on various campaigns — Britain must build prison ships! — less as a matter of civic conviction than because the campaigns moved copies at the newsstand. She shared drinks and horses with police officers, and her newspapers’ ability to make and end the careers of prime ministers meant that they frequently courted her, instead of the other way around.
Despite the book’s subtitle, the truth never catches up with Murdoch. True enough, he loves newspapering and has been known to become deeply involved in editorial matters, but no real case is made that he knew the specifics of how his papers were coming up with very private facts about public figures. His son James — the pair are frequently depicted at odds — was closer to the action, and was called to account both in Parliament and in the book. But one need only note his subsequent ascent to understand that the dents have been hammered out and he continues to roll along.
It is, in the best way, an old story. A lone gunslinger takes on a dishonest town, and in the end the bad guys flee. It is both more complicated and a bit less satisfying in reality, but that would be another book, and probably a less enjoyable one.