Nick Davies: Breaking the Story that Brought Down “News of the World”
March 27, 2012, 10:09 pm ET
Guardian reporter Nick Davies broke his first News of the World phone-hacking story in July 2009, after following up on a police officer’s tip that hacking victims numbered in the thousands. The scandal exploded two years later after Davies’ bombshell story revealed that News of the World journalists had hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler, a missing girl who was later found murdered. Though The News of the World shut down and multiple people have been arrested, Davies says “we have not yet got to the bottom of the barrel.” This is the edited transcript of two interviews conducted on Dec. 10 and Dec. 14, 2011.
When did you first run into hacking as a concept? …
… I first heard about the hacking of voicemail by journalists when somebody called me out of the blue and started telling me what had been going on at The News of the World. …
[Later,] by sheer chance I found myself sitting next to somebody very senior from the police. And because I had already heard a little bit about the untold story in the background of the trial of [The News of the World's royal correspondent Clive] Goodman and [private investigator Glenn] Mulcaire, I simply casually asked him: In the trial, when Goodman and Mulcare came up, there were only eight victims named. Is that really all there was?
And he said, no; thousands. And thousands I hadn’t dreamed of. And so that was a very strong incentive to try and dig a little more and find out what really was going on. …
So that encouraged me to carry on looking. … I slowly began to accumulate material. … I began to focus in particular on the fact that I discovered that one of the victims who had been named in court at the trial of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire [was] a man called Gordon Taylor, who’s from the football world. …
In court, the way it was presented was that the private investigator had listened to Gordon Taylor’s voicemail for no clear reason, and certainly not because The News of the World had asked him to.
Well, Gordon Taylor and his lawyer said: “We just don’t believe that. Why would this guy listen to my voicemail unless he was doing it for The News of the World?” So Gordon Taylor was suing [The News of the World]. … And I tried to keep on top of that, because little bits of it would pop into the public domain.
“It’s not just a story about journalists behaving badly. It’s a story that immediately, by fluke, takes you into not just the most powerful news organization in the country, but also the most powerful police service in the country and the most powerful political party … In all of these you find them behaving wrongly, illegally, immorally.”
And it became clear after a while that the judge who was dealing with Gordon Taylor’s case had ordered the police to disclose whatever evidence they had about that, and that was showing that The News of the World were involved. Crucially, the police handed over to that legal action what became known as the “e-mail for Neville.”
This was an e-mail from a junior reporter sitting on the news desk in London, [at] The News of the World, who was sending the transcripts of about 35 intercepted voicemail messages to the then chief reporter of the News of the World, Neville Thurlbeck: Here are the messages, they’re for Neville. And that clearly showed the intimate involvement of at least two News of the World journalists in handling messages that had been intercepted illegally from Gordon Taylor’s phone. And that completely contradicted the official version of events.
Eventually in July 2009, The Guardian published a big front-page story with a big spread inside that explained exactly what had been going on in this Gordon Taylor case. We revealed that the Murdoch network had paid out just about a million pounds to stop the legal action by Gordon Taylor and by two other people who were somewhat involved as well, and of course by doing that, they’d suppressed the evidence.
We got some of that evidence. We got … paperwork which showed that they’d been involved in the voicemail hacking. We also got evidence which was disclosed in that case about The News of the World’s use of another private investigator … to “blag,” as the word goes — to trick your way into getting access to confidential databases, phone records, bank records. …
… You were studying newsrooms. … The tabloid news world is the one with the reputation [of having] the least in the way of boundaries, right?
… What began to emerge was that for some decades, I think it’s fair to say, most newspapers in Fleet Street — that’s national newspapers in Britain — had been using private investigators and other specialists to gain information by illegal means.
This wasn’t just the tabloids. There were quality newspapers who had been doing this as well. So although it wasn’t the primary subjects of the book, I thought I’d better put it in there. …
And Goodman and Mulcaire came to your attention because they had hacked the royals, right? This wasn’t just anybody that they had hacked.
I think that the police inquiry into The News of the World starts almost with a fluke.
First The News of the World publish a silly little story about Prince William having injured his knee. It so happens that William hadn’t injured his knee. There was a short period of time when he thought he had. He’d left a couple of messages for people saying, “I think my knee is cropped.” Then the knee sorted itself out. So when The News of the World published that story, it clearly signaled they must have got it from listening to these messages.
The second point was that really this is not a terribly serious crime in itself, and a newspaper with the power and political and police connections [of] The News of the World would probably have sailed straight through that problem if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was the royal household who were complaining. …
… Some of the people that we’ve interviewed have remarked that to the people at The News of the World, to the News International organization, this kind of activity was just assumed to be one of their tools. They didn’t think of it as being illegal.
I think among low-ranking reporters, there was the sense that this is so commonplace and everybody’s doing it that we’re not worried about the law; it probably isn’t even illegal. But among the editorial executives, it’s absolutely clear that they understood it was illegal, and generally speaking, they took very effective steps to make sure that it wasn’t apparent that they were doing this. …
… There is a period when there was no such thing as voicemail. Were they wiretapping? Was there any indication that they were doing other kinds of electronic surveillance?
I think the boom in the use of private investigators to do illegal things starts in the late 1980s. One of the triggers is that our national telephone company, British Telecom, at that time produced for the first time itemized phone bills. So if I was able to blag my way into getting your phone bill, I could see all the people who you had been calling, and in particular, they charged cheaper for those people, 10 people who you would nominate as friends and family.
Now, if I want to investigate your background and I’ve got a list of the 10 people who are closest to you, that’s terribly useful in general terms. Plus, if there’s a specific allegation that I’m looking at, that you’re having an affair with somebody and I want to know whether you’ve been in touch with her, again, there’s hard evidence.
… This had actually started for quite a different reason. During Mrs. [Margaret] Thatcher’s time as prime minister, which includes the 1980s, there was a credit boom. Lots of people who hadn’t previously been able to borrow money were able to.
That meant that the number of people who disappeared without paying back the money they had borrowed hugely increased. So banks, building societies as we call them, television rental companies … turned to private investigators — because the police weren’t interested — to trace these people.
Those private investigators developed a particular skill in getting inside the kind of confidential databases which would allow them to find people who had absconded without repaying their debts. If you’ve disappeared but I can find the phone number that your mom keeps calling, I know where you are. The Social Security database was an extremely valuable target. So investigators started hitting those databases for banks and building societies and law firms.
Once they developed the skill, they said to themselves, there are other people around here who might like this. … Fleet Street responded with generous offers of money, and so a little sub-industry among a small group of private investigators picked up and developed. …
One of the things that developed was that some private investigators had links to corrupt police officers, and this enabled newspapers to use those private investigators as a corridor to get access to confidential information from the police.
This might simply be from the police computer with all sorts of background and intelligence about people, or it would be live information about live police inquiries. And there were problems with newspapers using this network of corrupt police officers to get information which then impeded the police in their inquiries. …
… The focus [of your social conversation with the Scotland Yard official in 2008] is the News Corporation, or News International, and its operations here in the UK?
The immediate focus was The News of the World, because that’s where the police investigation had been, and that’s where the arrest and trial had taken place.
And as time went by, the focus stayed on The News of the World, because in a way, the crucial evidence that we started to try to get hold of was the great stash of material which the police had seized from Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator, in August 2006, but which they had never referred to by and large in the court case.
That meant that whereas reporters could sit with me in cafes and say it’s been going on at this paper and that paper and the other, it was only in the case of The News of the World that there was the prospect of finding hard-copy detail which could prove the story. …
So we published the first story about Gordon Taylor … and all the rest of it. Forty-eight hours after that first story was published, News International came after us with heavy guns and put it a long statement denouncing us for lying to the British people. Now they did that because they could see as journalists that in everything that we were writing we weren’t citing a single source. We had the sources — either off-the-record, human sources, or documents we couldn’t disclose. But they could see the gap, so they attacked us. …
Now, it’s not just that it’s an extremely important story, but our own credibility is at stake, and the offshoot of that is that one of the sources said to me, “There is some paperwork you’ve got there that you can use.” Now that they’ve said something so dishonest, I’m going to let you use selected paperwork which has been through enough pairs of hands that they can’t attribute it to any off-the-record source.
One of the things they engineered was that I was called in front of a parliamentary select committee very soon after the first story was published. Potentially I was in a lot of trouble, because I had no evidence to display to show that the story was true.
But because they put out such an aggressive and dishonest statement, a source then allowed me to use a limited amount of paperwork. I could then show that to the committee, and they could see that what we were saying was true, in spite of the aggressive denial from News International. …
So it’s their aggressive behavior that’s ironically pushing this story forward?
… Because in the same way, if a public figure starts suing, they could have said, “All right, we’ll put our hands up here; you’re right, we were involved,” and they could have settled it. Instead, they said, “No, it never happened.”
Therefore judges in courts started ordering the police to disclose more of the material which they were sitting on, which then came into the public domain through trial. Therefore the amount of exposure got greater and greater.
Eventually it reached a point in January 2011, 18 months after we’d started, where they started to collapse. Andy Coulson, the prime minister’s right-hand man and [News of the World] editor at the time, had to resign. The police had to set up a new inquiry. Shortly thereafter, News International threw in their hand and had to admit liability in all these court actions and to admit also that their original line of defense had been completely false.
Is it possible that the arrogance here developed because back in 2006, when all this happened, it had been buried until you started writing? There was no one following up on this
… I don’t think the Murdoch empire’s handling of this is really about arrogance. It’s about power.
This is an organization which, first of all, is the biggest news organization in this country, one of the biggest in the world. That gives them inherent power, and sometimes they use this power in a frightening way to attack people. Even if they don’t, the latent power is so clear that for a long time, other power groups have been tiptoeing around them to avoid getting into trouble with them.
As far as I know, the police didn’t need to be told to take it easy here. They just spontaneously decided not to get into a fight with the Murdoch people. And it’s true on a wider scale that British governments have been tiptoeing around the Murdoch organization, trying to avoid getting into a fight with them.
I think given that internal feeling of power, it really isn’t surprising that they felt they could say: “This didn’t happen. We’re simply going to deny it and nobody’s going to be able to prove any different.” …
When you’re allowed to show some of your documents before the parliamentary committee, which papers were those that you could show?
I gave the select committee what became known as the e-mail “For Neville,” which was the transcripts of voicemail messages which had been intercepted from this football personality, Gordon Taylor, and sent to the then-chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck.
I also was allowed to present a copy of a contract which had been signed between an assistant editor at The News of the World and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in relation to investigating Gordon Taylor.
And the interesting thing about that contract was that the private investigator used a false name, and the newspaper knew that he was using a false name. That’s pretty suspicious. …
What kind of impact did that have on the committee?
I think the committee were very struck by the power of that paperwork. And one of the members of Parliament said at the time, “Well, this is a smoking gun.” Certainly it established that what News International had been saying about all this wasn’t true. …
You pursued which aspect of this case? Where did it go next?
… The most important, immediate thing which happened was that one of the other eight people who had been named in the original trial as a victim, Max Clifford, who’s a celebrity PR agent, he also decided to sue The News of the World on the basis that they must have been involved in some agent hacking into [his] voicemail messages, and that case started bubbling in the background.
Once again, a judge ordered the police to disclose evidence. There were some rumors that that evidence was quite exciting and was going to cause trouble for The News of the World. Then what I managed to establish was that lo and behold, for a second time, rather than allow the whole thing to become public, News International swooped in on Max Clifford, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, which was an awful lot of money for work over the next few years guaranteed, and he dropped his legal action. …
They weren’t then in the position of actually paying damages, and it was clever of them, so they managed to keep the lid on for a second time. But then what was happening was that those two legal actions clearly signaled to public figures that if you sued, there was the prospect of getting this material out of the police and discovering just what they had been doing to invade your privacy.
So a few other public figures started to take legal action. And these are quite brave people, because … they are afraid that if they do sue this powerful news organization, it will turn on them and start tearing them to shreds, attacking their work, exposing their private life. It’s a brave thing that these people were doing, people like [actress] Sienna Miller. …
You mean … the organization itself would turn on people and tear them up? There would be retribution?
Yeah. It’s clear this is a very aggressive news organization which targets people who get in its way. A very clear example of this: … In March 2003, a member of our Parliament, Chris Bryant, on a select committee asked Rebekah Wade — as she was then called, [before taking her married name, Brooks], then just newly appointed as the editor of The Sun — “Have you as an editor in the past paid money to police?” And she was caught on the hop. She said, “Yes, in the past we have paid the police.”
Months later, newspapers, including the Murdoch press but not restricted to the Murdoch press, exposed that member of Parliament’s private life and published a photograph which was calculated to embarrass and humiliate him.
There’s an earlier example: A conservative minister, David Mellor, dared to suggest in public that Fleet Street newspapers could not necessarily be trusted to regulate themselves. He used this famous expression: They’re “drinking in the Last-Chance Saloon” when it comes to self-regulation. He then had his personal, private life exposed in the most aggressive, humiliating way. …
Tell us about the Press Complaints Commission and their involvement in this.
The Press Complaints Commission twice had a look at this whole business of voicemail hacking, News of the World, first when the original trial took place in 2006, and then when we revived the story in 2009.
On both occasions, the Press Complaints Commission conspicuously failed to get anywhere near the truth. On the first occasion, they asked some good questions but made sure they didn’t ask those questions of anybody who could possibly tell them the truth.
They took an extraordinary decision not to talk to the man who had been editing the paper at the time, Andy Coulson, or anybody else who was at the paper at the time. All they did was to ask the incoming new editor, Colin Myler, what he had to say about it. And since he hadn’t been there at the time that all the crime was going on necessarily, he couldn’t tell them.
Then after The Guardian revived the story in 2009, they set up another inquiry. When they published a report saying there’s nothing in this, my editor described that report as “worse than useless,” and I would say he was being kind. I would say it was dishonest, and they subsequently have had to withdraw.
Why would they do that?
I think the problem with the Press Complaints Commission — the whole idea of the British press regulating itself — is firstly, the PCC is funded by the same organizations they’re trying to police. Secondly, its committee is populated by the editors of the newspapers they’re trying to regulate. And thirdly, it’s all voluntary. So all the time they’re worried, if we go in too hard on these newspapers, they may withdraw from cooperating. …
If you look at the big picture, British newspapers have one of the most — I would think probably the most — competitive market in the world simply because of the geography. You’ve got something like 60 million people who can be reached by train in five or six hours from London and Glasgow, … and the newspapers are out there fighting for these millions of readers.
This is not an industry of well-mannered old nurses sitting around in starched uniforms, sipping tea and hoping that they’re obeying the rules. This is cowboy country. How would you expect them to regulate themselves? It isn’t going to happen.
After you do the Max Clifford story, … the pace seems to be growing, the revelations seem to be growing, and the admissions seem to be [growing].
What happens is that there’s a period of time, about 15, 18 months, when The Guardian are on their own, and we keep laying out these revelations. I think any reasonable person would say this is becoming a very big scandal: biggest news organization in the country [is] in trouble, biggest police force [is] in trouble, and furthermore, the new prime minister’s right-hand man is in trouble.
But by and large, nobody else is paying any attention, so it’s not getting much traction.
We did a very unusual thing. Our editor, Alan Rusbridger, contacted the editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, and said two things: “First, there’s an amazing story here, and nobody’s covering it. You’d love it. Why don’t you get involved? And secondly, it would actually help us if you did, so we’re going to take the rather unusual step of not only tipping you off about it, but we’ll brief you so that you can work into it.”
So The New York Times came. They had three reporters here for months, and they did a lot of very good work. The first thing that was very important was they confirmed what we had been saying, which was extremely helpful.
Secondly, they pushed the story that little bit further. The crucial, one single, great thing they did was to persuade one of the former News of the World reporters to speak on the record with his name attached to it.
I had been talking to former News of the World reporters who had been extremely helpful, good people, pointing us toward the truth, but for fear of jeopardizing their career, absolutely understandably, I agreed that we wouldn’t name them, no problem.
This one man, Sean Hoare, who’s a brave guy, came out and said: “OK, I’m going to take their fire. Whatever they should throw at me, I’m going to take it. I’m going to say it on the record.” Good man. So that moved it forward in a big way.
That meant that there was a live body on top of documents.
That’s an unfortunate way of putting it, because he died. …
Sean Hoare’s contribution was terribly important, because where you’re dealing with off-the-record sources, it’s too easy for aggressive and dishonest people to pretend that the evidence isn’t real. And we’ve had trouble with this on the way through. What Sean Hoare did was to make it very difficult for them to deny it. …
So the story has legs. You get more allies.
Yes, the story had peaks and troughs, really. There were points when [we] were pushing very hard, and there was a great deal of political activity in Parliament, and then it would subside. We’d carry on getting revelations, and then it would peak again. After The New York Times story, there was a frenzy of political activity, and then it died down again.
Then it was really the civil actions from these public figures suing that built it up again in January 2011. The material that was being disclosed in those court cases put tremendous pressure on News International. And I think around that time, late 2010, 2011, there’s a sense of real crisis inside Murdoch’s organization. This is not going to go away. People keep dragging out new evidence into the public domain. We are in serious trouble now.
It’s at that point that the prime minister’s right-hand man sees the same very threatening picture and resigns.
And people start getting arrested.
In January 2011, as it becomes a really serious crisis, Scotland Yard changed their position and finally launched a new, serious, straight inquiry. They put 45 officers on it, and they start to do the job they should have done four or five years earlier.
That police operation, Operation Weeting, which was launched at the end of January 2011, digs deep into the evidence which they’ve been sitting on for all these years, finds massive evidence of crime, starts following it up, and then rapidly, in the end of March-April period, starts arresting pretty senior journalists from The News of the World. There were three former news editors arrested by the middle of April. … Now the crisis is eating at very high levels in News International.
Then there’s more disclosure in June of evidence of apparent corruption of police officers, and a second police inquiry is set up, not into voicemail hacking now but into the corruption of police officers.
And the rate of revelation is now picking up, because it’s not just The Guardian; there are other newspapers joining in. So there’s a mass of information about another private investigator … targeting people like the former prime minister Tony Blair and Kate Middleton, who is by now married to Prince William.
So the level of shock and thunder is rising and rising through April, May, June, July, and then in July there was this volley of stories where we published the Milly Dowler [story] about the missing schoolgirl having her voicemail being hacked.
The next day The Daily Telegraph piled in that the victims of the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London had had their voicemail hacked. The next day The Daily Mirror claimed that victims of the 9-11 bombings in the United States had had their voicemail hacked.
We then published a long saga of how The News of the World and how the newspapers had invaded the privacy of Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, grabbing all sorts of confidential data. The mother of another murdered child, Sarah Payne, we disclosed that The News of the World had hacked her voicemail.
There was just this stunning volley of revelations, and suddenly we hit the tipping point. Politicians said: “Enough. We are not prepared to stand by the organization that hacks into the messages of missing schoolgirls and the parents of murdered girls, or the victims of terrorism. We’re changing sides.”
They lost their political support. They lost their commercial support as a result of this volley of attacks coming after all this crisis, where people started to withdraw advertising from The News of the World. I think there were even examples of people who had never advertised in The News of the World [saying], “We’re withdrawing our advertising.” …
The period where the press commission is coming back and saying there’s no harm, no foul, no one else is joining in with you, you’re basically on your own — what are you thinking?
There were points when it was very frightening. It is no fun at all being attacked by an organization which controls at that stage four newspapers and a major television news channel in this country. It can fill you with panic, really.
But what I knew was that we were right, that we had evidence, we were going to get more. And one of the things that was very reassuring was that it stopped being a matter of just me being on my own, because various other people stepped forward and got themselves involved.
So there were two or three members of Parliament who, again, with some courage, stepped forward and said, “We’re going to dig into this.” There were four or five lawyers who said, “We’re going to do the same.” And there was this kind of spontaneous network [that] developed of people who … said: “Enough. We’re going to take these people on. We’re going to dig. We’re going to try and get to the truth.”
I think there was a phase when The Guardian were driving it; then there was a phase when the public figures suing and getting the police to have to disclose evidence, they were driving it. Then, from January 2011, when this new police inquiry was set up, they were driving it.
And the engine driving into Murdoch’s empire just became more and more powerful until it became an irresistible force, and then in that single week in July, that volley of half a dozen devastating disclosures, beginning with the Milly Dowler story, finally pushed it over the edge.
… Mark Lewis, [the lawyer] — it’s almost as if they picked on the wrong guy.
Mark Lewis is an interesting character. I always say he doesn’t have a fear gene. I didn’t know him at the time, but from the outset, he was the guy who represented Gordon Taylor from the footballing world, and I suppose you could say he was the first person to stand up and confront these people. And he continued to do so. …
… You don’t find him being unusual?
I think almost all of the people who became involved in this kind of spontaneous network are natural rebels. In the case of Mark Lewis, by sheer chance I came across somebody who was at school with [him] when he was like 8 or 9. And I said, “What was Mark like when he was a child?,” and he said, “Really clever, always causing trouble.”
You can see it; he’s just always been a rebel. He doesn’t like people telling him what to do. And I think that probably is there for all the people. …
That kind of activity in what purports to be a democracy is quite unusual, particularly for a corporation or any entity with assets to start doing that to public figures and politicians in an open way.
The nasty truth here is that the Murdoch organization has a history of being extremely aggressive. Some of that has been aggression in the interest of journalism, I would say, unforgivable, wrong aggression, and also illegal. But some of it has been aimed at people in power.
In this particular case, what they did was that they were very alarmed by the energy and courage of some of the lawyers who were pushing these legal actions in respect of the voicemail hacking, and they used a private investigator to follow at least two of those lawyers.
It’s clear that what they were looking for was … something about their personal life that would embarrass them. What they were aiming to do was to persuade them not to pursue these cases, and the lawyers themselves have used the word “blackmail” to describe what they were up to. …
Sad to say, that’s not the only example of dirty play by the Murdoch organization. … People are frightened of the Murdoch news organization; at least they certainly have been.
… It seems like the aggression continued unabated up until the moment that Rupert Murdoch appears before the committee. There’s no sign of contrition.
There’s definitely a turning point in April 2011 when they throw in their hand on all the legal actions and admit liability and withdraw the original claim that this was all the work of a rogue reporter.
The crisis is so intense inside the Murdoch organization that they have to admit defeat at that stage in April. Whether or not that meant they stopped kind of aggressive behavior behind the scenes, frankly, we don’t actually know yet, because we still haven’t got to the bottom of the barrel. …
… The turning point appears to have been the Milly Dowler story, that the average person was harmed by this, not a celebrity.
The Milly Dowler story was certainly important. I think that you’ve got to see that this was coming at a late stage of the crisis inside News International. This is after Scotland Yard has launched two new, very aggressive inquiries into voicemail hacking and corruption, after they’ve thrown in their hand on the civil actions, after Andy Coulson has resigned. They are absolutely on the defensive and crumbling.
Then there’s this succession of revelations beginning with our Milly Dowler story and then followed up by the victims of the July 2005 bombings in London being hacked, and the claim that 9-11 victims had been hacked, and the invasion of Gordon Brown’s privacy, this woman Sara Payne, whose little daughter had been taken and murdered. Her voicemail also was hacked by News of the World.
It’s that extraordinary. It’s like an artillery barrel — bang, bang, bang — firing into them.
But … the Milly Dowler story also includes the extraordinary moment of the emotional pain of the family that was created because someone had picked up the voicemails and some had been deleted. …
If you look back at the Milly Dowler story, the most important thing it’s saying is that The News of the World hacked into that little girl’s voicemail and listened to friends and family leaving heartfelt messages to get in touch. That was the headline on our story.
It’s absolutely true that the second most important part of that story was that the messages had been deleted and given the mother false hope that the child was still alive. That is actually true, but the problem was that at the time, all those who were involved believed that that had been done by The News of the World, and therefore we reported that. …
Five months later we find there’s new evidence which casts doubt on that. It doesn’t contradict it, but it casts doubt on it. …
Kelvin MacKenzie, talking about the deletion and the voicemail stories, said you were “catastrophically wrong.”
What this is really about is a backlash from the nastiest end of Fleet Street, which is best embodied, really, by Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie, a vicious clown.
The reality is, the police claim to have some new evidence which they won’t disclose or describe, and even in their own words, all this stuff is to make it unlikely that The News of the World were responsible for the particular deletion which caused this false-hope moment.
Look then at the way that the worst newspapers in Fleet Street and Kelvin MacKenzie report that, as though there had been a definite factorial finding that everything we said in that story was wrong. Then they build on it, and they try to pretend that the deletions were always the most important part of the story. Then they add another exaggeration and say without this story, the Leveson inquiry would never have been set up or The News of the World would never have closed.
You can see that the tabloids really haven’t changed. They don’t want to change. They’re still playing the distortion game that they have always played. …
They say that the original story was on your front page, but your correction or your reporting of this was not.
… We’ve actually covered this new evidence which the police claim to have found twice, once on our front page and once at the top of the page on our Saturday edition, which is easily the biggest selling of the week.
The argument here is that the new evidence which the police claim to have found confirmed the main point, the big headline of our original story and every single other point that we were making. Insofar as there may be a correction which has to be made — and it’s still in doubt because we’re not clear what the evidence is — it’s only of one part of the story. …
What you’re looking at is people who are desperate to find a boot to put into The Guardian, something to complain about, because we have relentlessly exposed their bad behavior, and they’re desperate to try and say, “There you are: The Guardian are no better than any other newspaper.” And, you know, I’m not impressed.
They didn’t just hack into the phone and get the messages. They also used some of that information. … What was going on there?
What happens is that when The News of the World are listening to the missing girl’s messages, they hear a message left by a recruitment agency, which suggests to them that Milly is still alive and has got a job interview arranged for her at a factory in the Midlands of England.
Now, you might think that humane, decent people, believing that the girl is still alive, would instantly go to the family and say, “Look, there’s hope here; don’t worry.”
But instead they keep it to themselves; they keep it secret. They leave the mother with nothing but pain for company, and they go off, and they spend days mounting a surveillance with eight reporters and photographers around this factory where they think the girl is going to show up for work.
They don’t find her, and eventually, when that doesn’t work after some days, they then go to the police and tell them this evidence that they’ve been sitting on.
And then a rather extraordinary second chapter, because it is certain that when The News of the World go to Surrey police to start talking about this idea of Milly having applied for a job, they explicitly tell Surrey police that they were listening to her voicemail, which is what normal people describe as a crime.
They go into this in quite a lot of detail, and Surrey police record it and yet take absolutely no action against them.
What does it say about the relationship of the police and News of the World?
It may be unfair to see that as collusive; it may just have been that Surrey police were so busy trying to find the girl that they didn’t want to go off onto that side issue.
But … they were breaking the law by listening to the voicemail. They were denying the police and the family evidence which they believed showed that the girl was still alive because they wanted to protect their exclusive.
There was a complaint from the recruitment agency who had left this message for the missing girl that The News of the World were harassing them, and the police themselves eventually concluded that The News of the World were wasting their time and distracting them from their inquiry by trying to put pressure on them to justify some sort of story that they wanted to put in the paper
It’s just a mess. It’s just a tabloid newspaper putting its own interests above everybody else’s. They have nothing to be proud of at all, and that’s why people were so angry. …
Kelvin MacKenzie would say: “Look what you did to Rupert Murdoch. He might not have had to have paid 3 million pounds. The case wasn’t what you made it out to be. They didn’t intend to do these things, and he might not have wound up in front of Parliament.”
… The negotiations about the compensation were between the Dowler lawyers and News International’s lawyers. News International have a great deal of access to information, and you will have noticed that never at any stage have they tried to deny that their people were responsible for deleting Milly Dowler’s voicemail.
They made that compensation payment on the basis of what they know about the case. It’s as simple as that, and it’s not The Guardian doing the negotiations.
There’s all sorts of silly things that get said in a situation like this. You might have heard some of the tabloids trying to say the Leveson inquiry would never have been set up if there had been any doubt about this deletions aspect of the story. Lord [Brian Henry] Leveson himself dealt with that, and he said that’s certainly not true; you’ve only got to look at the evidence side being listened to to understand why this inquiry was set up.
So you’ve got the old-fashioned tabloid newspapers still trying to distort and still trying to justify their bad habits.
… Some have said this is the journalism story of the century here in Britain. Is that what this is?
No, it’s weirder than that. …
It’s not just a story about journalists behaving badly. It’s a story that immediately, by fluke, takes you into not just the most powerful news organization in the country, but also the most powerful police service in the country and the most powerful political party, which happen to hire the former editor who was there when all this was going on, and for good measure the press regulation body. In all of these you find them behaving wrongly, illegally, immorally.
So really, ultimately this is a story about the power elite and the abuse of power, the cozy assumption that we can all look after each other because we’re all part of the same elite, and the rules don’t really apply to us, and the law doesn’t really apply to us.
The news organization says, “We can break the law,” and the police say, “That’s all right; we won’t enforce the law against you.” And the political party says: “We’ll hire the guy who was responsible for the law-breaking. We’re not worried; we’re all part of the same elite.”
That’s where the trouble comes from, and it’s a most extraordinary story from my point of view, because it’s like we start kind of poking a small hole in the ground with a stick, and … this hole opens up, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and then it starts erupting.
Suddenly you’ve got this huge volcano two years later just throwing up this kind of constant, endless spew of disclosure about the power elite and how they’ve been behaving, and it’s still coming out. …
From what I can see, the police are investigating themselves, and there is no oversight over that investigation. There’s no other agency that’s looking at what they’re looking at.
… The police are now running, I think, a genuine, vigorous investigation into the voicemail hacking and into allegations of corruption and bribery and into allegations of computer hacking. They’re probably going to do a pretty good job because the political pressure on them is enormous. They have to do it right.
But what they’re not doing is to investigate their own history of failure to use the evidence which was in their possession to investigate Murdoch’s organization, their failure to tell the truth when we and others started to dig it out, their relentless excuses on behalf of their friends in the Murdoch organization.
None of that is being looked at by anybody. Somewhere on the sidelines we have this independent Police Complaints Commission that seem to be twiddling their fingers at the moment. …
… So the police have one investigation that’s focused on the bribery allegations, but as I understand it, the only officer who they arrested, they arrested him for talking to a reporter at The Guardian.
There is a ferocious backlash against The Guardian from within the police, and as we are talking now, in spite of all of the allegations of corruption involving The News of the World, the only police officer who has been arrested and/or suspended and is now facing prosecution is an officer who they allege spoke to The Guardian without permission.
First of all, they are trying to construct that is a crime, which is pretty frightening. Beyond that, they are also trying to prosecute my colleague at The Guardian, Amelia Hill, alleging that she incited this officer to speak to her without permission, and the nature of that incitement as they allege is that she kept asking him questions.
So you can see an extremely punitive backlash from a police force which has been exposed and humiliated over a two-year period by this newspaper’s disclosure. We forced their commissioner to resign. We forced their very popular assistant commissioner to resign. They hate us, and they happen to have control of the criminal justice system.
So we are now in the front line. One of our reporters faces prosecution simply for having the temerity allegedly to talk to a police officer without permission.
Then, beyond that, what you can see is that some of the nastiest, most self-serving elements in this society would like to take this scandal of an out-of-control press and say: “In that case, we must control them. Let’s try and create a system where it is a crime to speak to the press without authority. We, the heads of the police and the heads of government departments, we will decide what information is released. And if anybody else says anything, that’s a crime.”
They are trying to create off the back of this scandal an information tyranny, and we have to be extremely careful to stop them.
So the unintended consequences may be the restriction of the press to report.
There is a real dogfight going on now. I think he’s got three corners. You’ve got the tabloids, who are trying to keep everything as it always was so that they can carry on breaking the law, invading people’s privacy, ruining people’s lives. You’ve got some very dark elements who would like to use this scandal to get control over the press, control flows of information in the interests of the power elite. Then you’ve got The Guardian and the Hacked Off campaign and the victims saying, “We’ve got to move forward to create a system where we protect the freedom of the press from the dark forces, but we also protect the victims of the media to stop those tabloids ruining people’s lives.”
It’s quite a difficult intellectual puzzle to sort out, and it’s also a huge political fight, and you know it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to win, because if you look at where the power is, the tabloid newspapers have always had more political power than this bunch of people who want to protect media victims.
And the dark forces who are trying now to control the media, you’re talking about the government. And the police, they also have a lot of power, and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that what I would describe as the good guys who want to keep a free press but protect the victims will win.
There [are] some serious risks here. It’s a battle worth fighting, but I can’t promise you we’re going to win. …
Are there more revelations?
It’s almost unstoppable, this process. You have this very powerful judicial inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, who has a great deal of power, and he’s calling witnesses for months to come. He’s going to look particularly at the relationship between newspapers and the police. We’ll get stuff there.
He’s going to start looking at the relationship between the Murdoch organization and politicians, which is going to be extremely interesting because of the possibility that the Murdoch people have been telling government how to behave in certain policy areas.
Then over the horizon we have criminal trials likely to happen, and there will be more evidence brought out there. I know from people who worked either with the private investigators or with the journalists that they believe there was a lot more computer hacking still to come, some examples of live telephone calls being intercepted, not just messages, and they claim some examples of burglary being committed on behalf of The News of the World in order to get information.
All of that remains to be confirmed, but we have not yet got to the bottom of the barrel. …
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY
NEXT ON FRONTLINELosing IraqJuly 29th
FRONTLINE Watch FRONTLINE About FRONTLINE Contact FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.