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How the Murdoch Gang Got Away

1.

In 2003, Andy Coulson was appointed editor of the News of the World, the famous or infamous London Sunday newspaper that in the middle of the last century was the best-selling paper on earth, for which Winston Churchill long ago wrote regularly, and that is mentioned in passing by Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh. Its staple had always been salacious court reports and the like, feeding a characteristically English taste of genteel prurience, but it had become much nastier and more brutal in recent decades. Coulson was obliged to resign his editorship in early 2007 but months later he was hired by David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, as communications chief for the Conservative Party. As if appointing a man who had just departed a seamy tabloid in cloudy circumstances weren’t error of judgment enough, Cameron then took Coulson to Downing Street with him in May 2010, although Coulson left within a year.

Rebekah Brooks
Rebekah Brooks; drawing by James Ferguson

Last June, a little more than four years after Cameron had become prime minister, Coulson was convicted at the Old Bailey in London of conspiracy while he was editor to intercept communications by hacking into cell phone voice mails, and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. He was one of several men and women on trial who had worked for the News of the World and its daily sister the Sun, the tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International group. Rebekah Brooks, who had preceded Coulson at the News of the World before becoming editor of the Sun and then chief executive of News International, was acquitted on the same charge; her husband, Charlie Brooks, was acquitted on a charge of concealing evidence.

While Coulson’s conviction was generally expected, Mrs. Brooks’s acquittal surprised many people, including the defendant herself, it’s said. After the trial was over, one didn’t have to read the news accounts too carefully to guess that they had been prepared on the assumption that she would be convicted and then hastily revised after the verdicts. That may have been true also of Hack Attack by Nick Davies, one of the few heroes of this dismal affair. An investigative reporter formerly on the staff of The Guardian but now writing for it freelance, Davies has broken a succession of stories. One was an exposé of tax shelters and the means by which multinational corporations avoid paying taxes. News Corp, Murdoch’s American company that controls all the others, would have had little to learn from Davies.

Then Davies turned to another scandal. Private suspicions that hacking cell phones was widely practiced by London tabloids, with victims including younger members of the royal family, had become public in 2006 when Clive Goodman of the News of the World was tried and imprisoned for breaking into phone messages. Davies begins his book in February 2008, with an altercation on the radio. He had just published Flat Earth News, a polemic on the media and its discontents. Although rather long and diffuse, the book made valuable points, for example about “churnalism,” the way that, in economically straitened times, and with ever-diminishing staffs, papers cut corners by regurgitating press releases as if they were hard news.*

Some of Davies’s targets in that book were in the ostensibly serious press: he berated Murdoch’s Sunday Times for some dubious stories, and The Observer, The Guardian’s Sunday sister, for the lamentable way in which it supported the Iraq War. But he also touched on phone hacking, and it was the managing editor of the News of the World who sneered at Davies that February morning. Speaking with hubristic arrogance, he insisted that only Goodman, the “rogue reporter,” had engaged in hacking, and that was the end of the matter.

He could not have been more wrong; as so often, the original crime was aggravated by the cover-up. As News International stuck to its original line that Goodman was a lone miscreant, it dug itself into an ever deeper pit of evasion, deception, and plain falsehood. In July 2009, Davies and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, appeared before a parliamentary committee and testified that hacking was not a practice “restricted to, or known about by, one reporter” but that News International had “known about the involvement of other journalists, including at senior level, for at least a year.” The following day Brooks told one MP that the affair would end “with Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy.”

When Coulson left the News of the World following Goodman’s conviction, he spouted the official line about a lone rogue reporter, which he knew to be false, and he said the same thing to Cameron, or so the prime minister has told us. He seems to think that we will be saddened by the way he was let down by a man he trusted, rather than wonder whether such a credulous booby as he appears to be is fit to be out on his own, let alone fit to hold high office. Cameron received repeated private warnings about Coulson, and yet Coulson was not only invited to join the Downing Street office but allowed to do so, for reasons that have never been explained, without undergoing the usual strict “developed vetting” by the security services.

Even when Coulson resigned from Cameron’s staff, saying that he had become an embarrassment, which was true enough, he still insisted that “I stand by what I’ve said about those events” at his former paper. And yet the cracks in that story had grown ever wider, until the dam burst in the summer of 2011. Davies discovered that, back in 2002 (when Brooks was editor), News of the World reporters had hacked the voice mails of a young girl who had been abducted and murdered. This news promoted a rare spasm of intense, authentic public disgust.

Desperate times needed desperate measures. Murdoch closed down the News of the World with a dramatic and seemingly penitential flourish, while Cameron set up an inquiry under Lord Justice Leveson, a senior judge, to investigate the scandal, and more generally “the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police.” It reported in November 2012 after Leveson had heard evidence from very many witnesses, including almost all those named in this article.

While Leveson’s verbose and unimpressive report raised more questions than it answered, some questions may not have clear answers. Repulsive as the practice of hacking cell phones is, it relies to some extent on our well-nigh universal failure to grasp that there is simply no such thing as secure telecommunication. This goes back 170 years, to “electrical telegraphy” sent in Samuel Morse’s code, followed by the telephone, whose copper wires could easily be tapped.

When wireless telegraphy or radio arrived its signals could be overheard, and encryption was no answer. As was demonstrated in two world wars, no code is ever unbreakable. The astonishing feats of the Bletchley team in breaking the German codes have been celebrated yet again in the new Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, but on the other side there was the ingeniously scrambled line on which Winston Churchill could speak to Franklin Roosevelt: the red telephone Churchill used can be seen at the War Rooms in London. They were wise enough to confine themselves to generalities rather than operational details in these chats, which was just as well, since we now know that their conversations were intercepted and unscrambled by the Germans. And today the NSA can read whatever e-mails it likes.

Any cell phone is potentially vulnerable to hacking by “PIs”—the private investigators, often former policemen, who were hired by London tabloids, and who play a large part in Davies’s story. As he relates, PIs had discovered how easy it was to find the cell phone number and PIN code, or password, of an athlete, princeling, or other well-known personage, and then even easier to listen to the voice mails on that phone. One of the PIs’ dark arts was “blagging.” This formerly harmless English colloquialism (“I blagged a couple of tickets for the opera tonight”) has taken on a very sinister meaning. Blaggers would ring a cell phone company and, by subterfuge and deception, obtain someone’s number and PIN code, which people are often too lazy to change. Experienced blaggers could even persuade British Telecom, the largest such company, to hand over itemized bills that revealed every call made by the owner of the cell phone.

2.

The author of Hack Attack has been attacked himself, by Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail. Davies is an obsessive, Glover says, whose reporting is distorted by an ungovernable hatred of Murdoch. Such strictures about want of journalistic objectivity and scrupulosity might seem a bit rich coming from the Daily Mail: at no time since its creation in 1896 by Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, has that very influential newspaper been noted for those qualities.

Nor is Glover disinterested. He used to write a somewhat haughty media column in The Independent, where in July 2009 he tried to dismiss the whole hacking affair as insignificant: “The BBC has conspired with the Guardian to heat up an old story and attack Murdoch.” Given what we have learned since then, Glover might do better to retract what he had said than repeat it. But of course Davies is obsessive. If he weren’t a driven man he might never have uncovered the story. And anyway, did the muckraking journalists of the Progressive era work with academic detachment?

Where Davies may be faulted is not why but how he writes. Like many of the best reporters, his work is less happy at book length, unconstrained by deadlines and length limits. So we get much fancy prose and fanciful imagery. Abuse of power in a democracy “needs concealment like a vampire needs the dark,” or the “story hit the power elite like a fan dancer at a funeral.” And when describing his anonymous contacts Davies sounds like a thriller writer decidedly manqué: “I’ll call him Mr Apollo,” “I’ll call him Mango,” “I’ll call her Lola.”

Nor is politics Davies’s strong suit. To say “the problem was that [Gordon] Brown’s gut instincts were far more radical than Blair’s” was admittedly a line much to be read in the pages of The Guardian, but was in my view no more plausible for that. Then Davies resorts to the kind of unsourced observation snatched from thin air characteristic of the tabs themselves: “There are those who say…,” “the insiders say that…,” “the insiders again say…” Who are these “those,” or “insiders”? And on occasion any sense of the ridiculous deserts him, as in the enjoyable line, “Rusbridger had relaxed and taken his hand off my knee.”

All the same Davies has an astonishing tale to tell, which he deserves full credit for unearthing. He only wants reminding that a story of such skulduggery doesn’t need overwrought prose. No lurid rhetoric is required to make the case against Murdoch and his newspapers, when the truth about grotesques and freaks who worked for those tabloids is bad enough. Two of them were the “famous double act” of Alex Marunchak, who became executive editor of the News of the World, and Greg Miskiw, a reporter, both of Ukrainian origin.

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch; drawing by James Ferguson

At one time I had a newspaper colleague who had been to Ampleforth, the Benedictine monastery in Yorkshire that is also a boarding school. He had been devoted to one of the younger monks there, whom he described as charming but high-strung. In 1996 a “reporter” from the News of the World “confronted” the monk with allegations about his sexuality. After the reporter left, the monk killed himself. Marunchak then sent a “jokey message” to the newsroom about “the death of that homo monk.” Makes you proud to be a journalist.

Davies also errs, in my view, when he writes that “since 1979, no British government has been elected without the support of Rupert Murdoch.” This suggests that newspapers decide the outcome of elections, a view widely shared, it must be said, by many politicians. But there is a confusion here of cause and effect, post hoc and propter hoc. To take an example, there were the Daily Mirror and Labour. The Mirror began life in 1903 as a genteel “ladies’ interest” paper and evolved until World War II, when it finally turned itself into Fleet Street’s first true voice of the working class, and thereby won the circulation race against the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

At the 1945 election, Labour swept to power in an electoral landslide. It has sometimes been said that the Mirror “won” the election for Labour, but it’s much truer to say that Labour won the election and the Mirror won the circulation war from the same broader causes. When Davies writes that no government has been elected without Murdoch’s support, what he means is that Murdoch has backed every successful party in those elections, a very different matter. Newspapers may well influence—as well as reflect—the social and political climate, but not by ordering readers how to vote.

What cannot be said too often is that the real culprits are the politicians, who always had a choice whether to truckle to those papers or not. Most of them did, above all Tony Blair, who forged his own intimate relationship with Murdoch. In the spring of 2004, Blair performed a dramatic about-turn, to the horror of his oldest supporters, when he announced that he would hold a referendum on the newly drafted European Constitution.

This was a sop to Europhobic sentiment, and without doubt sprang from a private deal struck with the Europhobe Murdoch, a quid offered by Blair in return for the quo of continued endorsement by the Sun in the election the following year. The election was duly won in May 2005 (after a fashion, a Labour parliamentary majority gained with a mere 35 percent of the popular vote), whereupon Blair quietly forgot about the referendum.

When Rebekah Brooks left Murdoch’s employ in 2011, after the revelation about the hacked phone of the murdered girl, his company not only made her a very large payment but agreed to cover all her future legal costs. This prudent foresight on her part paid off handsomely when she was defended at the Old Bailey by a team of the most experienced and expensive solicitors and Queen’s Counsel money could buy. The jury did not say, after all, that she had known nothing whatever about hacking, to suppose which would be far-fetched; under the priceless inheritance of English law, they found that the prosecution had not established her guilt on the charges as preferred beyond reasonable doubt.

And the trial was incidentally most illuminating, not to say entertaining, as when Brooks described the support she had received from her great friend Tony Blair. He had urged her to “keep strong,” and had offered to act as her “unofficial adviser.” Brooks testified that after the News of the World closed and she was due to appear before a parliamentary committee, Blair had told her to ring him for advice: “I may be of use on Commons.”

Best of all was a text message in which Blair advised Brooks that News International should arrange to “publish a Hutton-style report” that would “clear you.” Blair meant the inquiry into the death of David Kelly that he had set up under Lord Hutton in the summer of 2003. Kelly was a leading authority on biological warfare, and had privately expressed anxiety to a BBC reporter about the fraudulent claims on which the invasion of Iraq was based. When the reporter said on the radio that those claims had been “sexed up,” Blair and his media manager Alastair Campbell, the man who had helped compile the mendacious “dossiers” about so-called WMDs, determined to identify and expose Kelly, who could not bear the strain and committed suicide. When the Hutton report was published in January 2004 and exonerated Downing Street, it was widely seen as a crude whitewash that had served its intended purpose. From what he said to Brooks, it would seem that Blair agrees.

3.

How much has changed? Maybe “the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch,” in Davies’s high-flown subtitle, but it doesn’t seem to have done much lasting harm to him, or the News Corp stock price, or his newspapers. Coulson could not be saved from prison, although he has already been released early, wearing an electronic tag, a nice touch in view of the way his reporters liked to track the movements of others. But Rebekah Brooks is free, the News of the World was soon back as the Sun on Sunday, and News International is still with us as News UK, as if the change of name means a change of heart.

There are signs that Murdoch’s attention is flagging, and what might be politely called his increasing eccentricity is magnified by his addiction to Twitter—that device helpfully enabling people to write faster than they can think—with such effusions as “Why is Jewish owned press so consistently anti Israel in every crisis?” or “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.” And there is also bitter tension within the family and beyond. Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter, is leaving the television production company she founded with his help.

She has also left Matthew Freud, her husband, partly because of a difference between them about Blair. Four years ago Blair stood beside the River Jordan clad in gleaming white biblical clothes, as godfather to the elder of the two girls who were being christened, the young daughters of Murdoch and Wendi Deng, his third wife. Now Murdoch is divorcing Wendi, apparently on account of her tendresse for Blair. No, Blair is not a man who brings good fortune to those who deal with him.

Part of Davies’s charge is that Murdoch knew about the hacking all along. Although hard to prove one way or the other, direct orders and precise knowledge aren’t the way Murdoch works, which is by string-pulling, winks and nods behind the scenes, and always some degree of plausible deniability. At the same time he plainly bears responsibility for the prevailing culture at his newspapers: anything goes, and no questions asked.

That, and an assumption that they would always get away with it. Despite everything that has happened, that cast of mind hasn’t entirely vanished. After Brooks’s acquittal, her counsel applied for recovery of her legal costs from the Crown, which is to say the British taxpayer. This is quite conventional, even if Brooks—“Thou barely ’scaped from judgment,” as Kipling put it—looked as if she was pushing her luck.

Her application was nevertheless carefully considered by Mr. Justice Saunders, the trial judge. He then said that, before he deliberated further, he needed to see all internal correspondence that would illuminate “the relationship between News International and the News of the World,” and their conduct after the original arrest of Clive Goodman, when the frantic cover-up began. At that point, the application for costs was quickly withdrawn by Brooks’s lawyers.

Where Davies is absolutely right is that “one of the most striking features of all this crime is that the police failed to tackle it.” The police were not just outrageously negligent; for years they sang from the same libretto as the tabloids they should have been investigating. Scotland Yard dismissed Davies’s claims, and threatened him with “RIPA,” the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. One of the most oppressive laws the Blair government ever passed, it permits almost limitless surveillance of all citizens by the state.

Behind this was a dismal story, the long and intimate relationship between News International and the Metropolitan Police. Part of Leveson’s brief was to investigate that connection, but he didn’t delve anything like deep enough. The episode the press insisted on calling “Plebgate” began in September 2012, shortly before Leveson published his report, with an altercation between Andrew Mitchell, then a Cabinet minister, and a policeman on the gate at Downing Street. It has just now run its course, with Mitchell losing an ill-advised libel action he had brought against the Sun.

A judge held that Mitchell might well have called the policeman a “fucking pleb,” a phrase that has now entered the annals of Our Island Story. Some of us always doubted that Mitchell had said this—the second word, not the first—simply because “pleb” hasn’t been in everyday use for generations, and the police have a long record of inventing testimony. But in any case, the most disturbing thing about the previously unpublicized incident was that it appeared on the front page of the Sun two days later, just as for years past supposedly confidential dealings between the police and well-known citizens had a habit of turning up in those pages.

If they breathed a sigh of relief at News UK when Rebekah Brooks was acquitted, and the Sun gloated when Mitchell lost his action, they groaned on October 16. At Kingston crown court, prosecuting counsel presented charges of “corruption on a grand scale” against six employees of the Sun who had, he told the jury, bought information from police officers, members of the armed forces, and prison officials. The court heard evidence that Brooks, as editor of the Sun, authorized all payments.

Corruption of this sort is, when all is said, far more serious than phone hacking, and might among other things reawaken interest at the Justice Department in Washington. The Sun is ultimately owned by News Corp, a corporation domiciled in the United States, and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is unambiguous. As London papers say at the end of their court reports, the case continues.

—December 10, 2014

Letters

It Was in the ‘Kyiv Post’ January 29, 2015

  1. *

    The earlier part of the story has by now been widely told, among others by myself in “What Rupert Hath Wrought!,” The New York Review, June 21, 2012.