In February 2008, two newspapermen debated on Today, the BBC radio program that starts the day and sometimes sets the political agenda. One was Nick Davies, a Guardian reporter of the good old-fashioned kind who diligently ferrets out stories, the latest of which was “phone hacking,” by journalists and others. There had been rumors of tabloid reporters clandestinely accessing voicemails on the mobile telephones of public figures well before something happened to the cell phones of the young princes William and Harry in late 2005. Numerous messages on their cell phones and those of several royal aides were mysteriously saved as if they had been listened to, before the owners of the phones had heard them. And stories about the princes that could only have been based on those messages had appeared in the Sunday News of the World, and also in the daily Sun, the two papers that Rupert Murdoch had acquired, in 1968 and 1969, at the start of his astonishing career as a British press magnate.
When the police were informed, they said the cell phones should continue to be used as normal while they traced the hacking callers, who proved to be Clive Goodman, a News of the World reporter, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator. In January 2007 they were given prison sentences, and Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World. He had edited the paper since 2003 when he took over from Rebekah Wade, who herself had been made editor in 2000 aged only thirty-two, and then went on to edit the Sun; in 2009 she would be raised higher still to become chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s company that controls his London papers. (Since her marriage that year she has called herself Rebekah Brooks.) But Coulson was not out of work for long: only months later, in July, he was appointed director of communications, or what we used to call a press officer, to David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party.
This hacking scandal was among the subjects Davies had discussed in his book Flat Earth News (2008), an indictment of the present-day media ranging from the tendency to treat publicity handouts as hard news to the shameful credulity of much of the press about the way we were taken into the Iraq war. He had come on the radio to discuss his book with Stuart Kuttner, managing editor of the News of the World. Since the scandal erupted, Kuttner’s paper, and News International as a whole, had stuck to a line: Clive Goodman had been a lone miscreant, a “rogue reporter” whose activities were in no way characteristic of the paper. Kuttner contemptuously dismissed Davies and his “sour and gloomy” book, insisted that the British press was “the finest in the world,” and reiterated that hacking had “happened once”: the offender had been sacked and jailed, and that was the end of the matter.
Later that morning, as if in a thriller, Davies received a call from a stranger. He was someone very well placed within News International who had heard the program and been outraged by Kuttner’s arrogance. What Kuttner had said was completely false, the caller told Davies: not only had Goodman himself hacked cell phones on a vast scale, the practice was rife throughout the News of the World. Stimulated by the call, Davies renewed his sleuthing. The “rogue reporter” defense had never seemed very plausible, but it now began to unravel—and News International was fighting a desperate rearguard action in a way that contradicted its protestations of innocence.
As more people learned they had been victims of hacking they began to sue, and were privately offered compensation. Only months after Kuttner’s bluster, Gordon Taylor, head of the soccer players’ union, accepted a payment of £450,000, and £250,000 in legal costs, on condition of confidentiality, and the silence of other victims was also bought. That was all very well but if there were scores of victims, then buying them off at that rate would be ruinous for News International—or for News Corporation, Murdoch’s American parent company, whose investors had never shared his love of the London newspapers.
A parliamentary committee was investigating the question and began to suspect that it had been misled, suspicions not stilled by Coulson’s repeating in 2009 that he had “no recollection” of hacking while he was editor. Davies continued to dig away, encouraged by the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, who had joined the paper on the same day as Davies in 1979 and had edited it since 1995.
Then Rusbridger adroitly opened an offensive on another front by urging Bill Keller, his opposite number at The New York Times, to look into the hacking story. In Dial M for Murdoch, a useful account, albeit written in a tabloid style that seems ironically to be infectious, by Tom Watson, a Labour MP, and Martin Hickman, a reporter on the Independent, the authors artlessly say that this was “a strong story for a liberal American paper” because of “the Manhattanite Rupert Murdoch.” They don’t mention the fact that Murdoch had acquired The Wall Street Journal in 2007 and set it in direct competition with the Times. That looked like another healthy motive for Keller to pursue the story, just as the Guardian’s zeal would naturally have been increased by its rivalry with Murdoch’s London Times, and why not?
A long piece, “Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond,” appeared in The New York Times Magazine in September 2010, and sent shock waves across the Atlantic with its details of how widespread hacking had been. The damning evidence included an e-mail from Ross Hindley, a News of the World journalist, to Neville Thurlbeck, the paper’s chief reporter, containing “the transcript of hacked messages that had been sent by a reporter at the paper.” This was clear evidence that earlier News International denials of innocence or ignorance were false. Four months earlier, in May 2010, the British general election had left David Cameron and the Conservatives with the largest number of seats in Parliament but short of a majority. Cameron became prime minister after forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats—and brought Coulson with him to Number 10. Coulson left Downing Street only in January 2011, months before the great explosion.
On June 15, 2011, Rupert Murdoch gave his usual lavish summer party where the many senior political guests included Cameron and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Three weeks later, on July 5, the Guardian published its most devastating story to date. Milly Dowler was a thirteen-year-old girl who had been abducted in March 2002, when Rebekah Brooks was editor of the News of the World. As it tragically proved, Milly had been murdered; but while her fate was unknown and the police were trying to find her, News of the World reporters had hacked her cell phone. More than that, Davies claimed that “deleted voicemails gave family false hope”: learning that her voicemails had been deleted, presumably by Milly herself, led her family to believe that she might still be alive. In fact the report of this “false hope” proved to be wrong, something that the Guardian could have been quicker to admit, since it was an error in good faith.
But that did it. Murdoch thought that only a melodramatic gesture could staunch the wound. Two days later came the startling announcement that the News of the World was being folded after 168 years, and more than four decades of Murdoch’s ownership. Brooks said that she was staying put, but others demurred. Although Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Alsaud is scarcely a name to conjure with in Fleet Street or Westminster, the Saudi prince happens to be the second-largest investor in News Corp. He told the BBC that Brooks should resign from News International, and so she did the next day, while Cameron announced that an inquiry into the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal would be held under Lord Justice Leveson, examining “the culture, practice and ethics of the media.”
All this came at a very bad moment for Murdoch. With his usual commercial acuity he had early grasped the possibilities of satellite television, which had proved immensely profitable, a contrast indeed to his newspapers nowadays. Murdoch owns 39 percent of the BSkyB broadcasting company and wanted to acquire it outright, to which end much private pressure was exerted: James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, admitted that he had a “tiny side conversation,” presumably about BSkyB, with Cameron at Rebekah Brooks’s house on December 23, 2010. But the public outrage of last summer meant that Murdoch had to drop his pursuit of BSkyB, for the time being at least.
Meantime the parliamentary committee summoned Rupert Murdoch and his son James. Rupert said that it was “the most humble day of my life,” while Tom Watson, a member of the committee—and later the coauthor of Dial M for Murdoch—called James a mafia boss to his face. This spring the committee produced a damning report on News International, saying that Murdoch was not “fit” to run the company. Then on May 11, Brooks appeared before the Leveson inquiry, and was strikingly composed, while giving evidence that Cameron cannot have enjoyed. Five days later came the electrifying news that Brooks and her husband and four former colleagues were being charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by removing materials pertinent to police investigations. This is a much more grave offense than phone hacking.
By now the affair could scarcely be more serious. One police unit investigating phone hacking has made twenty-two arrests, another investigating computer hacking has made three arrests, a third investigating illegal payments to public officials has made twenty arrests. It looks as though one more investigation will be needed, into the interpenetration of News International and the Metropolitan Police itself. This relationship, and the alleged payments to officials, have sent shivers down some spines at News Corp, since such behavior would appear to be just what Congress had in mind when it passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
And yet, however lurid and squalid all this is, most frightening of all is what we have learned about the almost symbiotically intimate relationship between Murdoch and successive British governments.
But perhaps the story begins in 1915. Turkey had entered the Great War on the German side and, in an unlikely attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front, British and Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula west of Constantinople. One of the landings was at Anzac Cove, from “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” and Australia still marks Anzac Day as its national day of remembrance. The disastrous enterprise ended the following January, leaving behind 46,000 Allied dead, among them 8,700 Australians. A young Australian journalist named Keith Murdoch had visited Anzac Cove and come away with a story of gross military incompetence by the British high command, which shook the London government; his son Rupert cited “Gallipoli” with pride, as if it were his last talisman of honor, when facing the parliamentary committee.