Nick Davies: "This isn't a story about journalists behaving badly—it's a story about power"

July 31, 2014
Nick Davies, author of Hack Attack (c. Judy Goldhill)
Nick Davies, author of Hack Attack (c. Judy Goldhill)

In February 2008, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies went on to the Today programme to talk about his book, Flat Earth News, an examination of the "scale and origins of falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the media." Mischievously, the programme's producers had put up as Davies's interlocutor Stuart Kuttner, then managing editor of the News of World and a man whose reputation for ruthlessness went before him.

When Davies began to enumerate the "dark arts", often criminal in nature, employed by certain tabloid newspapers, Kuttner moved quickly to head off any criticism of the paper he worked for. "If it happens," he said, "it shouldn't happen. It happened once at the News of the World. The reporter was fired; he went to prison. The editor resigned."

The reporter in question was the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, who was found guilty of intercepting phone messages left by members of the royal household. The editor was Andy Coulson, who, by the time Davies and Kuttner locked horns on Radio 4, was working as communications director for the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron.

When Davies left the studio, he received a phone call from a man who told him that phone hacking at the News of the World was widespread and not, as Kuttner and his employers had maintained, the work of "one rogue reporter." Thus began the story that would eventually lead to the closure of the News of the World, Lord Leveson's inquiry into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press" and, finally, the imprisonment of Andy Coulson himself.

I caught up with Davies in London recently to talk to him about his new book, Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch, in which he describes in riveting and kaleidoscopic detail just how the story unfolded.

JD: This book, like your previous one, Flat Earth News, is about the dysfunctions of journalism in this country. How do you see the connection between them?

ND: The connection is the one I describe in the opening chapter of this book: while I was on the radio talking about the first book, Stuart Kuttner  made this daft remark [that phone hacking had happened only once] which provoked the second. Once that happened, and once I began to deal with the source who I call “Mr Apollo," the story became so deliciously attractive that I couldn't walk away from it. But this book isn’t really a story about journalists behaving badly—it’s a story about power.

If you look at the first story we published—the one about Gordon Taylor—we said there and then that [the revelations] raised questions for the leader of the biggest political party in the country, which had just hired Andy Coulson; for the biggest police force in the country, the biggest news group in the country and also for the press regulator [the Press Complaints Commission]. So from the word go you can see that it’s got extraordinary implications. And it’s weird because it actually starts with this story about Prince William hurting his knee and leaving a message saying he needs to see a doctor. From such small beginnings you get a story with such destructive power.

One of the most shocking aspects of the story as you retell it in the book is the role of the Metropolitan Police and their initial failure to pursue the multiple cases of phone hacking you’d uncovered.

In the first instance, their failure to run a thorough inquiry in 2006 was probably motivated by what they said it was motivated by: at the time, they were also having to investigate plots to commit mass murder. I think that was true. But once they failed do the job properly, everything else that happened was pretty worrying. When we started writing stories trying to establish the scale of the crimes committed, their persistent failure to tell the truth to the press, the public and to Parliament was really worrying.

There are certain individuals inside the Metropolitan Police who do not come off well. One such is John Yates, then an Assistant Commissioner in the Met.

Yates is a sad story in a way. Before I started working on this story, I’d never dealt with him. But his reputation was good—he was an approachable, reasonable, straightforward guy. I think he made a small but almost fatal error very early on, when we ran the first story. He thought it would go away very quickly, that it didn’t matter. He stood outside Scotland Yard and said, effectively, “Move along now, there’s nothing to see here.” And once he’d made that statement, he was trapped. He didn’t have the courage to step out of the trap he’d set for himself and say, “Actually, what I said outside Scotland Yard was wrong and we do need to re-investigate this. The scale of the crimes is much greater than I said.”

Are there any individuals or groups inside the Met who emerge from this story with their reputations intact?

There are two different groups in the police who emerge with credit. One is the anonymous, middle-ranking officers who assisted us in exposing the truth. And the other is the people who come in and run Operation Weeting, when finally Scotland Yard accepts that it needs to do the job properly. But Scotland Yard as an institution still doesn’t emerge well. One of the things that is so sickening is that throughout the John Yates period, when senior officers at Scotland Yard were persistently failing to tell the truth, there were whistle blowers we spoke to who were willing to tell the truth. But when the scandal breaks, Scotland Yard reacts by saying, in future, every officer who has anything to do with the press must keep a record of it, which means that whistle blowers won’t be able to speak to journalists without permission. Instead of solving the problem of their own mendacity at the top, they actually embed it in the rules.

So the reaction of John Yates and others inside the Met was that this wasn’t a significant story and that they were justified in not reopening their investigations. But did you know from the beginning just how explosive a story you had on your hands?

I think, statistically, I already had the shape of the thing. A couple of people who I spoke to very early on said there had been “thousands” of instances of hacking—two or three thousand. In fact, in the end there were 5,500. The other thing was the power implications—those were clear straightaway.

Almost as egregious as the behaviour of the police was the supine posture adopted by the Press Complaints Commission. Your stories were, as you put it, a test of the idea that newspapers can regulate themselves. The PCC failed that test miserably didn’t it?

The PCC was pathetic, spineless. The PCC had a perfectly good code of conduct which it consistently failed to enforce. They not only published two reports which assisted the News of the World in covering up its crimes, in the second of those reports they actually had a go at the Guardian and attacked our coverage. Their main line of attack on us was that in the first of our stories we had claimed that phone hacking was continuing up to the present day. In fact, that wasn’t true—we didn’t say anything at all about what happened after Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World in January 2007. The PCC set up [Guardian editor] Alan Rusbridger and me: they didn’t tell us they were going to say that we’d claimed that hacking was continuing. They sent us an email: “Do you have any evidence that this is continuing?” So we wrote back and said no, of course we don’t. So they then said we were unable to substantiate our claim that hacking was continuing. In the Leveson inquiry, the PCC had to give up masses of their internal paperwork. And in it is a memo sent by the director of the PCC in which he says “the Guardian do not claim that hacking is continuing.” Yet in their report they pretended they believed we had said that.


They were looking for a stick to beat us with. And by pretending that we’d said something for which we had no evidence, they could discredit our work. And that really is malicious. It wasn’t just an error of judgement.

What about Leveson? Did it change anything?

I think the Leveson Inquiry, as a theatrical spectacle, was amazing. You had the power elite having to justify themselves, explain themselves. It was a thrilling exposure. The most important thing that Lord Leveson did in his report was to propose a regulator that would be independent of both Fleet Street and the regulator. Sadly, but predictably, the response from the bad end of Fleet Street has been to engage in aggressive falsehood and distortion. The effect of that on the government has also been sadly predictable—they’ve tended to back off. So now you have a mess. It doesn’t look as though Leveson will be implemented and the irony, of course, is that what has stopped it being implemented is exactly the kind of behaviour by Fleet Street which made the report necessary in the first place.

This was a remarkably complex and drawn-out story. Were there times when you felt as if you were bumping up against the reluctance of some of your most important sources to go on the record? When you thought the trail had gone cold? What was the worst moment?

The initial 48 hours, after we published the first story in July 2009, were pretty upsetting and frightening, because first we had John Yates outside Scotland Yard and then News International tearing us apart, saying the story was wrong. In the case of News International, they were accusing of us of deliberately misleading the British people. And it’s no fun at all being on the end of that. I describe in the book how a small voice inside you starts to say, “Well, what if we have got it wrong?” That’s a very frightening thought. Even if you can come back and say, “No, this story is true,” you’re nevertheless taking a hell of a kicking. I got into a taxi in London, and the driver asked me what I did. I told him I was working on the phone hacking story and he said, “Oh yeah, that all turned out to be wrong.” It was very frustrating and upsetting.

There were other points on the way through [the story] when it was similar—the obdurate indifference of other news organisations on Fleet Street, the continuing denial and obstruction from News International, the continuing denial and obstruction from Scotland Yard. All that was frustrating. On the other side of the equation, one of the reasons we were able to keep moving forward is that Murdoch has made an enormous number of enemies. And apart from those who were overtly opposed to him—people like Tom Watson, say—there was under the surface a vast reservoir of resentment. It was there in the political world and, interestingly enough, in the newspaper world. An awful lot of people who worked for Rupert Murdoch did not like the regime of bullying and lawbreaking. So that pool of resentment eventually became a pool of information for us.

How important was the intervention of the New York Times in the summer of 2010 to moving the story along?

I think it was important. They put three reporters on the story for weeks and weeks. They confirmed the guts of what we were saying, which was extremely helpful, and they pushed it a crucial step forward—they persuaded someone who’d worked at the News of the World to come on the record. So when Sean Hoare went on the record in the New York Times, that definitely gave the story a big push forward. Remember, you’re up against people who deal in denial and dishonesty, so it isn’t enough just to be right.

That was in the late summer of 2010. Then, in the autumn and early winter of that year, the story took another turn with NewsCorp’s bid for BSkyB…

It was a sheer fluke that the two things were happening together. A sheer fluke that they came to a climax at the same moment, in July 2011, with the Milly Dowler story, at just the time when the bid for BSkyB is close to being decided. As I explain in the book, the reason Rupert Murdoch and his son James were going after BSkyB was that the cash income from it would enable them to borrow enough money to go and buy Time Warner or Disney, thereby making Murdoch the biggest media owner in the world. The BSkyB bid eventually crashed because of phone hacking, but just in the last week Murdoch has made another run at Time Warner. So that plan is still in place.

If you ask why they closed the News of the World, now I understand why: it was precisely to save the BSkyB bid. It was nothing to do with being law-abiding citizens, and everything to do with trying to send a political message that would enable them to get the BSkyB bid approved.

Perhaps the most decisive moment in a story with many decisive moments was the discovery that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked. Did that feel like the beginning of the endgame at the time?

No. When I filed the story, I said in my covering email to Alan Rusbridger, “This may be the most powerful story so far.” I could see that it would have a real emotional impact. None of us foresaw the extraordinary consequences it would have. One thing that happened was that the story was powerful enough to bring in other newspapers. Finally they started covering the story. And once they’re covering it, you’ve got more impact. Then the Telegraph, which had been sitting on the sidelines showing no interest in the story at all, came out with a story saying that the families of the London bombings in 2005 had been hacked. And, to give them credit, they followed that up with a story about families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan also being hacked. So the chain reaction was irresistible.

There was one aspect of the Milly Dowler story you got wrong: the claim that messages on her phone had been deleted by News of the World journalists. What damage did that error do?

The chief effect of that was that it gave the bad guys an opening from which they could attack us. That’s very frustrating. And you could say it’s an example of why these guys aren’t to be trusted.

You record in the book Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police between 2009 and 2011, describing the phone hacking story as a “a load of middle-class wank." Now, he’s not the only person to describe it thus. More disinterested parties than him have dismissed it as an obsession of a small liberal, metropolitan elite. How do you respond to that?

That’s just wrong. One indicator would be opinion polls, where you get very high numbers, something like 70 per cent, saying something has to be done about the press. There’s a real public concern out there about newspapers ruining people’s lives, publishing falsehoods and breaking the law. Beyond that, there’s the big picture of British society becoming less and less political. People are more likely nowadays to identify themselves as consumers rather than as political creatures, as they did in the years before 1979. Nevertheless, even in such a context, the idea that one man and his organisation can step into a democracy in which he doesn’t have the right to vote and start putting pressure on the government to change its policies—that’s very alarming to many people. So at both the level of newspapers behaving badly and at the level of power and democracy, it isn’t a “load of middle-class wank." It’s really quite important stuff.

Nick Davies's "Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch" is published by Chatto & Windus (£20)