Books

08.25.14

Murdoch on the Rocks: How a Lone Reporter Revealed the Mogul's Tabloid Terror Machine

The phone hacking scandal wasn’t the work of rogues: It was the inevitable apex of Murdoch journalism—and only a real journalist was able to reveal it all.

Rupert Murdoch has a long history of successfully deflecting hostile fire about his influence on the news business. We are talking not of a Teflon Rupert, a man against whom nothing sticks. We are talking of a Kevlar Rupert, whose armored vest absorbs fusillades without him flinching. But this time it’s different. Serious damage has been inflicted. Someone has got through all the defenses, formidable though they are, and drawn blood.

Of all the people most likely to cause harm to the reputation of the Murdoch empire it would have been hard to predict that it would be a reclusive, mild-mannered reporter who is not all that comfortable in the company of other journalists. But here comes Nick Davies with a book (Hack Attack, Faber & Faber) that pulls together years of dogged investigation into a sobering indictment not just of journalism as performed to the Murdoch tune but of its effects—political and cultural.

The culmination of Davies’ reporting for The Guardian was a trial that opened at the Old Bailey, Britain’s most storied criminal court, in October 2013 and ended in July 2014 with the jailing for 18 months of Andy Coulson, the former editor of a Murdoch tabloid, the News of The World. He was found guilty of conspiring to intercept voicemails. Rebekah Brooks, one-time lover of Coulson and chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspapers, who had been on trial for a more serious charge, a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, was found not guilty and set free.

Two dark arts had been dragged into the public gaze at the Old Bailey. The first was tangible and defined by law: the rampant use of phone hacking to strip people of their privacy and, often, to ruin their lives. The second was far more elusive and shadowy, but equally corrupting: a collusion of Britain’s power elites.

Coulson was seen as a catalyst of these arrangements. He had moved from journalism to Downing Street, becoming David Cameron’s director of communications when Cameron became prime minister in 2010. As is often the case, Davies’ story proves that it’s not the original crime that is the essence of a scandal, but the cover-up. And always in the background, evanescent but, in the end, accountable, is Rupert Murdoch—courted, feared and sometimes loathed.

In August 2006, Clive Goodman, who covered the royal family for the News of the World, was arrested and charged with intercepting cell phone messages between members of the royal household. In January 2007, Goodman was jailed for four months, and Glenn Mulcaire, a pioneer in the techniques of hacking, was jailed for six months for his role in providing Goodman with a series of scoops by eavesdropping.

The people who were supposed to be protecting the public from criminalized journalism were leaving themselves open to being caught by the self-appointed sex police of the Murdoch papers.

There it seemed to end. Coulson and Murdoch’s top executives at News International said that the hacking was the work of one rogue reporter, Goodman. There were rumblings that, in fact, Coulson had been the ringmaster of a far more extensive hacking operation, but Scotland Yard, who were investigating, assured the government that “no additional evidence has come to light.”

Goodman remained silent. He had been paid $300,000 by News International after claiming “unfair dismissal.”

But Davies had been working the story and by July 2009 he had persuaded his editor at the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, that he had enough sources to show that Goodman had been the fall guy and that the News of the World had become a virtual hacking operation. Rusbridger cleared Davies to post a piece on the Guardian website, which detonated in its opening paragraph: “Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers has paid out more than one million pounds to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of his journalists’ repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories.”

Davies’ account of what followed reads like a thriller. The Murdoch empire trained its formidable arsenal of lawyers and flacks on the Guardian. The police refuted that they had computer files stuffed with evidence that the hackers had found thousands of victims. (Eventually it turned out that there were more than 7,000.) No other British editors followed the Guardian. (In 2010, The New York Times ran a well-sourced story that helped to undermine the cover-up.)

By the summer of 2011 things had changed. A new police investigation was at last mining the data and revealing how widespread the hacking at the News of The World had been. Even so, Davies and the Guardian were the only serious pursuers of the story and the Murdoch executives still thought the damage could be contained.

But then Davies took a phone call that in one stroke turned the story into an uncontainable national scandal that generated worldwide revulsion. The call was from a source who said that the News of the World, while Brooks (who preceded Coulson) had been its editor, had hacked the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, six days after she had gone missing in 2002. Dowler had, in fact, been murdered, and six months later her body was found.

It got worse. The phones of families who had lost loved ones in the 2005 London terrorist bombings had been hacked, as had the phones of the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Murdoch lawyers and executives, a systematic four-year cover-up had been blown apart, revealing their cynical and squalid disregard for the truth, the public interest and any vestige of basic decency.

Everything that Davies uncovered led back to one place, the newsroom of the News of The World. The picture he draws of it should become a permanent part of the history of journalism.

Newsrooms have never been places for the faint of heart. When two Chicago reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, wrote the play Front Page in 1928 the newsroom of the fictional tabloid, the Herald Examiner, looked and sounded like some kind of zoo in which the editor, Walter Burns, drove the primates to abandon all norms of behavior in the hunt for scoops. Orson Welles mimicked the same culture for Charles Foster Kane’s tabloid in Citizen Kane.

As drama it was accepted that tabloid journalism and high principle were not natural bedfellows. In real life, a newsroom was always a place where people of ruthless ambition were quartered closely together working to a relentless cycle of deadlines and the usual courtesies of life were rare.

It was not much better in the space above the tabloids. The office politics of The New York Times have often resembled a combination of the Kremlin and the Vatican. Beginning with the story told in Gay Talese’s masterful history, The Kingdom and the Power (1969), and continuing through the turbulent editorship of “flood the zone” Howell Raines and more lately the brittle and short reign of Jill Abramson, the pressures of the Times newsroom have left much blood on the floor.

However, set in the context of this cultural and vocational tradition, the newsroom of the News of The World as revealed by Davies makes all forerunners look like preschool. Under Andy Coulson, the practices of the News of The World newsroom became the inevitable apotheosis of all that had gone before it in the evolution of Murdoch journalism.

When Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1969 it had built the largest circulation in the world with more than 8 million copies published every Sunday. It was not a tabloid in appearance. It was a broadsheet with a strange amalgam of serious news and salacious but primly edited stories, often about clergymen who had departed from their vows. The paper was renowned for a phrase used when its reporters explored and exposed the seamier sides of London life, like brothels: “I made an excuse and left.”

When Coulson took over the paper in 2003 its circulation was 3.5 million, in a greatly diminished market still the best-selling title in Britain, and no longer primly edited. In 2004-05 the paper won the highest honor in British journalism, Newspaper of the Year. (Davies reveals that every story cited for this award, including those exposing the affairs of David Beckham and a British cabinet minister, was acquired by hacking voicemails.)

Two of Coulson’s sidekicks ran the newsroom, Ian Edmondson and Jimmy Weatherup. They were at daggers-drawn with each other, and colleagues defined their roles by calling Weatherup “Secrets” and Edmondson “Lies,” although Edmondson liked to call himself “Love Rat.” Coulson had another henchman in the office next to his own, Neil Wallis, 20 years older than Coulson and who, according to Davies, was known for his “psychopathic ability to divorce his emotions from his actions.” In the newsroom Wallis was called “the rasping fuckwit.”

But Wallis’ value to Coulson was his assiduously nurtured connections to the top men at Scotland Yard—he persuaded a retiring head of the Yard to write a column (ghosted) for the paper for a weekly fee of $10,000.

As Davies tells it, monogamy did not have much of a grip on the upper levels of public life. Senior police officers were bed-hopping, as were the officials who were supposed to be overseeing the probity of the police, the British equivalent of the Justice Department. Davies writes, “the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] had been having a secret affair, and the Attorney General, who was ultimately responsible for the DPP, had been having a secret affair…nobody in the senior ranks of the criminal justice system was capable of keeping their trousers on….”

So the people who were supposed to be protecting the public from criminalized journalism were leaving themselves open to being caught by the self-appointed sex police of the Murdoch papers, whose methods extended beyond phone hacking to sifting through the garbage of celebrities in search of discarded underwear.

The government lawyers and a toothless body responsible for the ethics of British journalism, the Press Complaints Commission, were all supporting the police contention that the one rogue reporter had done all the hacking and that his victims were few.

The News of The World newsroom generated the kind of fever seen in a Wall Street boiler room, though with considerably less lucrative rewards. People worked all hours, often addled with booze and drugs, and casual sex was readily available. The ruling force was fear. The human resources department kept a log tracking the performance of the reporters; a falling byline score would bring a warning and failure to rebound could mean being fired.

Where did this climate of fear originate within the Murdoch organization?

Obviously its immediate enforcer was Coulson. As Davies says, Coulson was required to be ruthless.

“From his proprietor and the board of News Corp 3,500 miles away in New York, through the chief executive of News International, Les Hinton, who sat in the same building in Wapping, east London, the unstated message to him and to Rebekah Brooks, editing the Sun in the same building, and to every other editor in every part of the empire was constant and simple: ‘Get the story—no matter what.’”

In this assertion lies the fundamental challenge to all those who have, over the years, sought to confirm that it is Rupert Murdoch himself who designs the journalism that he sells. Its standards are his standards. But there never has been any documentary evidence of this, there is no Citizen Kane proclamation that the simplistic “get the story” demand also specified exactly what kind of story we are talking about and how it is to be gathered.

Some reverse-engineering is required to seek the answers, to track back to a time before News Corp became the global media powerhouse it now is.

The original cash cow of the Murdoch newspapers was his red-top daily, The Sun. When Murdoch bought the paper in 1969 it was a moribund broadsheet losing a ton of money, with a circulation of 800,000. By 1979 it was selling 3.7 million copies daily and making a ton of money

The editor who took the Sun to the heights of its formula was Kelvin McKenzie, who ran it from 1981 to 1994.

McKenzie was an unapologetic believer in the lowest common denominator and a fact-mocking primitive who—as Davies recounts—defined his target reader as “the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs [people of color] back, buy his poxy council house [public housing]. He’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers.”

As Davies says, McKenzie didn’t just identify the perfect bigot—he was that bigot. And ran the Sun’s journalism accordingly. However, Davies also says that McKenzie “precisely matched his employer’s approach to life—a journalist uninterested even in the most fundamental rule of all, to try to tell the truth.” But this is rhetoric. It may be a reasonable deduction to be made from the steady debasement of journalism by the Murdoch newspapers and TV newsrooms over the years, but there are no fingerprints on the record to prove that Murdoch himself actually is a primitive like McKenzie and, indeed, he need not be that man as long as his agents are.

What Murdoch understood and wanted was news in a form that excited and appealed to the emotions. McKenzie’s formula of the basest of emotions, bigotry, is too crude to define the contours of Murdoch’s own formula. Murdoch does understand the power of fear in the delivery of news—particularly fear of the future in all its forms, which has become part of his conservative creed and is so much trafficked on Fox News. Better than anyone though, Murdoch saw and exploited the emotional needs satisfied by the pursuit of celebrity. It was the pursuit of celebrities, right down to the knickers in the garbage, that finally led to the disgrace of phone hacking and forced Murdoch to close the News of the World.

There is a reason that the Murdoch empire incorporates the word “News” in its registered corporate entities. More than any other media proprietor, Rupert Murdoch had an intuitive revelation about the value of news as a commodity. It’s rather like the way that John D. Rockefeller named the company that made him a fortune Standard Oil. Murdoch saw that news was like a natural resource the value of which, once extracted, could be greatly multiplied by the way it was processed.

In this form of alchemy, news ceases to be something that is being relayed objectively from its source, an event, to the receiver, the reader or the viewer. Nobody in the newsrooms of the News of The World or the Sun was interested in simply relaying in a concise and accessible form the particulars of an event, or even taking those particulars and presenting them in a sensational and dramatic form—other papers did that, and doing it would not propel a byline to the top of the audit being kept by the watchdogs of the human resources department.

Under Coulson, the processing of news at the News of the World had gone criminal very quickly. Davies follows the progression from a simpler age when stories were often part or wholly inventions, to the onset of criminality through the use of a private eye agency called Southern Investigations. It reveals a dark, picaresque confluence of bent cops, who provided access to police records, illicit surveillance and a paper hungry for scoops. In a single year, 1996-97, News of The World paid Southern around $200,000 for its work, including access to the Queen’s medical records.

This was before cellphones were in wide use. Once Coulson’s newsroom discovered how vulnerable to eavesdropping cellphones were, the paper got scoop after scoop. The celebrity scandals became addictive to both the reporters and the readers.

The revelation that the Murdoch papers had taken to hacking on an industrial scale lifted the scrutiny of their journalistic standards free of a familiar problem—expressed in Rupert Murdoch’s impatient shrug that popular journalism had always been, well, popular. It sold. That was the nature of the business. The only people who complained, went the Murdoch line, were the elitists at places like the BBC and The New York Times, two institutions that Murdoch despised, who were congenitally deaf to the vox populi.

Davies’s reporting finally shredded that mask. The methods of the Murdoch tabloids had even contaminated his two London “quality” papers, The Times and the Sunday Times.

The most beguiling figure in this whole drama is Rebekah Brooks—it could be said that she is the only beguiling figure. As a powerful woman she presents problems for men trying to fathom her. Davies, for example, says “The word that follows Rebekah around is ambitious”—surely a truly banal observation if applied to a man. Davies froths at the vision of her working a room: “She is particularly good with men, her fingers resting gently on their forearm and her gaze resting direct on their eyes. Not quite sexual, not quite romantic….”

And the stories about her behavior in the newsroom tend to have an undercurrent of “she ain’t no lady.” For sure, in the culture of crude “ladding” that was endemic at the red-tops Brooks gave as good as she got, showing a volcanic temper and a ruthless demand for her paper to trounce their rivals on a daily basis.

At the same time she became an accomplished social and political asset to her boss. As someone who had modest beginnings, her rise was self-driven. Davies notes that people had seen her “on the eve of an important dinner, studying the table plan like a schoolgirl actress with her script, spending several hours revising until she knows all the names and the partners’ names and the children’s names and the personal interests and the important topics; and then she goes out and performs.”

That’s not “like a schoolgirl actress.”  Her preparation sounds like normal due diligence by a conscientious executive for the task in hand. And it worked. Among those she charmed with great effect was Tony Blair; the prime minister’s respect for her included an understanding of her power as an editor. Blair never made the mistake of underestimating Brooks, and his own considerable powers of ingratiation were exercised on her.

Later, it was only a neat step or two for Brooks to have the same effect on David Cameron: she and husband Charlie Brooks, a gregarious but none too smart trainer of racehorses, were soon cantering across the Cotswold pastures with Cameron.

With her cascade of red, twirling hair and pale, fine-boned face. Brooks resembled a pre-Raphaelite beauty—in fact, there is a painting by John Everett Millais called The Bridesmaid where the model has the same hair style. It was the kind of face in whom poets saw both beauty and tragedy, someone on the edge who might carelessly drown in a lake surfaced with lilies. This lady, however, was not for drowning.

Under attack, she was vicious. Someone who had known her for years told Davies that she could at times seem like “the beating heart of the Devil.” She threatened the Guardian that she would run a story about editor Rusbridger’s love child. There was no love child. The story never ran. But the temper of her defense was clear. It was all part of the unscrupulous technique of “monstering” critics of the Murdoch empire wherever they were.

As an editor, Brooks was prone to wrap the trash of much of her papers’ journalism, both at the News of the World and the Sun, in the respectable cloak of investigative reporting. For example, she cited her campaign to expose pedophiles living, unnamed and unchallenged, among vulnerable communities. It was hard to quarrel with that. But they were a soft target: She knew better than to campaign against the power elites among whom she moved and with whom her boss held great influence.

At the Old Bailey trial, Brooks and her defense team had persuaded the jury that the runaway train of phone hacking had never attracted her attention. Her pillow talk with Coulson when they were lovers for six years had never included mention of it. Obviously, the prosecution hoped that the classic injunction of all investigations to “follow the money” would lead to her. Murdoch was known to personally track all of the editorial budgets with a gimlet eye. Brooks was a trusted manager. Somehow, though, large amounts that were going to the hackers were buried from her gaze.

To buy that you would have to accept that Brooks was either negligent or incompetent. She is neither.

Brooks came through the Old Bailey trial bruised but not defeated. The jury accepted that when Milly Dowler’s phone was tapped, Brooks had been away on vacation and Coulson was running the paper. Her mentor promised that she would still have a powerful future role somewhere in his empire; she had the kind of drive and nose for what an audience craved that could create a buzz in any medium. Davies says that a key to Murdoch’s choice of executives is that he likes thugs—he is not one himself but finds them companionable and effective—Roger Ailes of Fox News being a prime specimen. Brooks could be something else, the rare thug in a skirt, albeit more attractive, a practiced dissembler with an instinct for the jugular and very smart.

Alas, poor Coulson. As he was taken down from the dock to be driven to prison he was downcast, as anyone would be who was publicly sacrificed. He was radioactive to those who once valued his political counsel and editorial avidity. Unlike Brooks, there was nobody to offer him a future. But he had an asset. He had never told his side of the story. He could, if he chose, go deeper than Davies into his own soul and the truth of how orders were given and executed. He owned a missing narrative of potentially great value and impact.

Tainted, Murdoch’s British newspapers have been broken free of the rest of the empire as part of a wider separation of print, television and movie divisions. The News of the World, founded in 1843, was replaced by a Sunday edition of the Sun. But the Sun, neutered by the scandal and with celebrity stalking off limits, has to get scoops the old-fashioned way, by hard reporting.

There’s a feeling that the hacking scandal will bookend the age of the red-top tabloids, which increasingly seem locked in an analog past. The Sun still sells around 2 million copies a day, but it is closely shadowed by a paper of long pedigree, the Daily Mail, with a sale of 1.7 million copies a day and a more middle-class readership of reactionary tendencies. But the Mail has reinvented the tabloid form for the digital age, creating a phenomenon, Mail Online which is the most visited newspaper website in the world, with 11.7 million daily visitors and 189.5 million unique visitors a month.

In fact, Mail Online looks like the future of tabloids, presenting a mix of bite-sized world news and a fast-flowing stream of celebrity drivel. It’s a formula that you might have expected to have been a natural outcome of the Murdoch philosophy. In fact, the Mail is owned by descendants of Alfred Harmsworth, who at the dawn of the 20th century invented the British popular press and who intuited what Murdoch later did, that news was a mother lode waiting to be mined.

Industry insiders believe that Murdoch is preparing an ambitious response to Mail Online in the form of a digital tabloid called The Post, employing the demotic and views of the New York Post. So far Murdoch has not shown the same flair in his digital enterprises as he has with print.

How much influence does he retain? People who understand the way political and commercial power work in contemporary Britain have told me that they think the presentation of Murdoch as the poster boy of a widespread contagion is too simple. Nobody doubts his manipulative skills or his single-minded agenda to advance the interests of the corporation he created.

His personal aura—the vulpine gaze, the Australian rasp of his opinions—gives the impression that Murdoch is performing with relish a role that has been assigned to him, the menacing mogul. But seasoned observers of the British elites argue that the real wielders of power know better than to be publicly recognizable or so typecast. From the days of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer and a man who foresaw the devious uses of power in a modern state, the real influence brokers in Britain have always been much stealthier than Murdoch and remain so. It’s true that some prime ministers—Blair and Cameron, for example—have been guilty of accepting Murdoch’s projections of his own power, rather than the reality of it. But this simply shows their weakness rather than proving that Murdoch is as omnipotent as he would have them believe—or is.

So who is Murdoch’s nemesis? Nick Davies is clear in the book about his motivation: He’s never scented a secret that he didn’t want to pursue, especially secrets that had claimed victims. And he confesses to a secret of his own: “I spent my childhood being hit by people—grown ups—some of them genuinely vicious, some of them simply believing the noxious idea that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child.”

He’s entitled to keep the details of his childhood to himself—and in doing so to make a point about the boundaries of privacy. He tellingly describes moments of self-doubt in the course of an investigation, that reporters run on “a flammable psychological mixture, like petrol and air, a volatile combination of imagination and anxiety…you go out to check what your imagination has delivered, you complete the mixture by pouring in an equal measure of stomach-burning anxiety.”

Davies is a freelancer “so I hide out in my study down in deepest Sussex.” His relationship with Rusbridger goes back to when they began as junior reporters on the Guardian on the same day in 1979. “Now that he is the editor, we have a very simple deal: I bring him stories; he covers my back.”

The hacking investigation called for the best in both of them. If anything, Davies was more aggrieved by uncovering the rot within the Metropolitan Police than the more predictable malfeasance of journalists. At times he was wobbly about whether he really had enough sources to support what his instinct told him was the truth. At other times he worried that as he came under public scrutiny during committee hearings at the House of Commons his mouth might get ahead of his facts; Rusbridger sat alongside him and they had an agreed signal that the editor would tap the reporter’s leg if he thought that moment had come. It never did.

Interestingly enough, Davies has never revealed the source of the phone call that told him Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, which blew open the whole scandal. “At first,” he writes, “the source was so nervous that he insisted I must make no inquiries for fear of exposing him.”

I would guess that the source was among the team of detectives at Scotland Yard who, appalled by earlier attempts to close down the investigation of the News of the World, were keen to see their profession redeemed by full public disclosure.

Rusbridger certainly needed people to protect his own back. Going up against everything that News Corporation could throw against the Guardian was dangerous. But in 2010 Rusbridger, Davies and other colleagues, together with the editors of The New York Times, had held steady through the flak fired at them for publishing Wikileaks’ trove of documents from the U.S. State and Defense Departments. It helps that Rusbridger has no proprietor to fear. The paper is owned by a trust and they trusted him.

Promoting his book, Davies has said that the extent of Murdoch’s power over media and public life is “incalculable.” He does himself a disservice. As a result of this book it is now much easier to calibrate the nature, range, and methods of the mogul.

Davies is probably unaware of how potent his reporting is. I’m told that had Murdoch’s hostile takeover of Time Warner gone further, Time Warner’s defense would have drawn on the revelations of Hack Attack to warn regulators and congressional committees that Murdoch’s record showed a man who had scant regard for normal standards and practices. (Longtime Murdoch watchers were surprised that he dropped the bid so quickly —they had believed in the rule that “what Rupert wants, Rupert gets.”) In particular, Time Warner was aghast at the prospect that the jewel in its crown, HBO, could find itself under the direction of people who form the cast of the macabre drama related in Hack Attack—and who make the Sopranos look like choirboys.