Vintage Books, 2015, 443 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
At Britain’s annual press awards in London’s Savoy hotel in 2011, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World accepted, with no hint of shame, the prize for ‘scoop of the year’ for its exposé of corruption in Pakistani cricket, beating the nomination of the freelance/Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, for his six-year investigation of the criminal phone-hacking scandal that was engulfing Murdoch’s flagship gutter-press rag.
Hack Attack is Davies’ step-by-step account of how he unearthed the “dark arts” of snooping used by News of the World, in the process displaying the “secret world of the power elite and their discreet alliances”, the “casual arrogance” of press, police and politicians snubbing the law and covering up their wrongdoing.
What started as a minor skirmish which saw one private investigator and one journalist jailed in 2007 for hacking the mobile-phone voicemail of a few Buckingham Palace staff, ended in a major route and the ignominious closing by Murdoch of Britain’s biggest selling newspaper.
Guided by sleazy public voyeurism rather than legitimate ‘public interest’, and driven by a bullying managerial imperative to ‘just get the story’ regardless of ethics or legality, Murdoch’s stable of British tabloids had pioneered phone-tapping, email hacking and break-ins to dredge up the “most intimate, embarrassing and painful” secrets, usually involving sex and drugs, from the private lives of the famous and not-so-famous. Confidential personal information was stolen from police and government databases using false pretences and deception (‘blagging’) and through cash bribes paid to corrupt employees.
News of the World took the phone-hacking criminal enterprise to stellar heights, with thousands of victims spied on. It was a practice deeply embedded in the paper, including amongst Murdoch’s editors who themselves directly commissioned dirt-bag private investigators or condoned their journalists’ use of them.
Yet, as the Guardian began to publish Davies’ revelations, there was a marked “shortage of people willing to get in a fight with Murdoch”. The rest of the press (both tabloid and ‘quality’) were mute because they had their own dirty ‘dark arts’ linen to conceal. The “senior ranks of the criminal justice system” (top cops, government prosecutors) waved everyone on. The police were anxious to protect their own bent coppers who were on the take, were keen to butter-up a press to run only good police news stories, and were desperate to keep their own secret sexual affairs from the prying eyes of News of the World.
The then Labour Government (despite its own prominent targets of the phone-hacking) was inert. Their politicians either ideologically embraced Murdoch’s neo-liberal values, or feared the Murdoch safes rumoured to contain dirt files on politicians, or cowered before Murdoch’s power to make and unmake governments - for the last 36 years, “no British government has been elected without the support of Rupert Murdoch”. The incoming Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, appointed as his media and communications chief the Murdoch editor who had supervised the phone-hacking operation.
Both governments had invited Murdoch, his editors and his Chief Executive Officer into their inner sanctum where the price paid to keep Murdoch on side and stay his hand on mobilising News Corp readers as election-punishing “ballot fodder” was to soft-pedal on News Corp’s transgressions, to adjust media policy to promote the corporation’s business expansion, and to involve Murdoch in government appointments and Cabinet reshuffles.
Davies contrasts the elite’s kid-gloves view of the phone-hacking scandal with “the version that was being shown to me by a small collection of nervous off-the-record sources” – journalists, private investigators, the managers and lawyers of various celebrities, morally upright police detectives and government whistleblowers.
What brought the Murdoch fortress crashing down was the spread of the phone-hacking victims from the rarefied world of celebrities to common people whose targets included a murdered schoolgirl (Milly Dowler), the victims of the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, and, unforgivably to Establishment patriots, the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This development made the News of the World product-line toxic to the entire Murdoch brand, and threatened Murdoch's plans for government sanction for gaining sole control of the TV news channel, BSkyB. Millions of pounds of revenue were also being lost as corporate Britain withdrew their advertising. The Church of England disinvested its £3.7 million shareholding in News Corp. Facing such business pressures, Murdoch cut his losses and closed the paper in 2011.
This outcome would not have been possible without Davies’ forensic skills of investigative journalism. Not content to recycle press releases, or write “propaganda masquerading as journalism”, Davies demonstrates how “the best stories are the ones which someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know”. His accomplishment is testament to his infinite patience and unwavering attention to detail (virtues which, be warned, the reader of his book must also possess – its focus is microscopic).
“Truth had won a battle with power”, writes Davies of the phone-hacking wash-up but, he adds ruefully, “very little has changed”. “Some people resigned and Murdoch suffered a brief humbling” but the police strengthened their anti-whistle-blowing powers and politicians’ doors have remained open to Rupert and his clones. News of the World was relaunched as the Sun on Sunday, whilst twelve months after the Dowler story, News Corp shares rose by 23%, the company’s value rose to $73 billion, and Murdoch’s personal annual income hit $30 million. “The power of the elite” remains, concludes Davies.
As with many Murdoch-centric books on the media, Davies’ treatment of the non-Murdoch media elite is under-developed. Ungrounded in a critical analytical framework of the media under capitalism, the focus on the grubby excesses of Murdoch can make his more moderate corporate and state media rivals appear more meritorious than they warrant, including ‘lefty’ papers like Davies’ The Guardian. The phone-hacking of people’s private lives should be exposed but so should capitalism’s destructive hacking of people’s economic and political lives. This is rarely part of the job description of any media which is based on and respects the boundaries imposed by the profit principle.