News & Politics

Behind The Scenes With The Reporter Who Took Down Murdoch

"Even though his reputation has suffered, he still has the objective tools of power," says Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who broke the Murdoch phone hacking story.

Nick Davies is a British journalist and filmmaker who began his career in the mid-1970s. An accomplished freelancer and special correspondent for the Guardian, he is the author of five books, including Flat Earth News, a withering and widely-praised critique of the British press. His forthcoming sixth book will concern the latest and arguably most important scoop of his career -- the phone hacking scandal that has rocked News Corp. to its foundation. Davies met with Media Matters in New York to discuss his scoop and why he thinks "Murdoch has a lot to answer for."

How long were you on the phone hacking story before it broke open?

I started looking at it in January 2008. At first, it was just one project I was working on of many. The first story didn't appear until July 2009, after 18 months of working on it. It was a big story that caused a huge reaction in the UK. Then I began tackling it full time -- producing some 80 stories over a two-year period.

When did you begin to suspect there was something big under the surface?

Very early on. During the 18-month period when I was working on it part-time, I learned enough to know the truth. Not only were there a lot of journalists doing a lot of illegal things within the Murdoch organization, the former editor [of the paper in question] happened to have gone to work for the man about to become the prime minister. Instantly, the significance of the story is raised a level. And then you have the fact that the largest police force in the country had clearly failed to investigate, or inform all of the victims. And I found out early on that one of the hacking victims was the deputy prime minister -- a man who knew about economic and military secrets. It was also clear early on that the members of the Press Complaints Commission, the press regulatory body, failed to do their jobs.

How is News International different from other media companies operating on Fleet Street?

News International has been rather unlucky because they're the ones who got caught. But lots of other newspapers on Fleet Street have been doing the same thing. But the story has become about the Murdochs because Rupert Murdoch is so peculiarly powerful. I think you could put a reasonable case together for saying he's the most powerful man in the world.

Do you think the Murdoch family was shocked to lose its immunity so suddenly?

In the United Kingdom, they had acquired so much power that nobody was interested in confronting them. So that is why Scotland Yard didn't investigate the hacking charges properly. That is why political leaders have been accommodating them. It reached a point where they said, "We can't run a government in this country unless he supports us, so we have to keep him on side." While the Guardianwas popping away on this story, even the rest of Fleet Street was reluctant to pursue it. There was a widespread fear of the old bugger. Which is very unhealthy. But nobody predicted the extent to which they would be defeated. What happened in July, after the Milly Dowler story, the scale of opposition was so great that there suddenly came this break-point where everyone could see he was being taken on. He lost the aura of invincibility. Everyone found their spinal columns, at last.

How would you describe his new stature in the U.K., post-scandal?

He presented this image to the Select Committee of a humble old man. Part of that was a PR construct designed to win sympathy. But I don't think that's the truth. Some people say he's finished, so tarnished that he'll never again have access to political power again. But I'm not sure that's true. Even though his reputation has suffered, he still has the objective tools of power. He still does own these media organizations. And therefore politicians will continue to try to accommodate him.

Watching this unfold from the U.S., there seems something anachronistic about the way the tabloids in Britain are so competitive, and maintain such a prominent role in public life.

The whole picture is different in the U.K. Our newspapers are dying too, with the rise of the Internet, but the historical context is different. It's a matter of geography. We have a population of 60 million people crammed into an area the size of the state of Texas. What this means is for many generations you've been able to print a newspaper in London and Glasgow, put it on a train, and reach the whole country the next morning. That's a lucrative market. Therefore you've always had a large number of national newspapers fighting for dominance.

As someone whose career has paralleled Murdoch's rise in Britain, how would you describe his impact on journalism, and the country generally?

In the 1970s, Murdoch bought The Sun. It was then an unsuccessful left-wing tabloid, but then he pushed it down-market. It became successful and as a result the other newspapers got dragged down market behind them. So he's had a parallel impact to his impact here in the U.S. It's not the Fox-ification, but Sun-ification. That's been a really destructive impact, and he has a lot to answer for. Rupert Murdoch has made Britain a more racist, more sexist and more stupid place. Because of what he did to The Sun, and what The Sun did to other newspapers. I think he's done the same in Australia, with the Herald-Sun in Melbourne. He tends to triangulate. He'll have a popular newspaper like The Sun, or the New York Post, then he has an up market paper like The TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Australian, and then he has a television channel. And that arrangement gives him lots of money, and lots of power.

Is there awareness in Britain of the retarding effect Fox News has on American political debate?

There is among the political classes. We watched in a state of horror as Fox promoted and legitimized the Tea Party. Before the scandal, one of things on Murdoch's agenda was to change the broadcasting rules in the U.K. to allow him to have something like Fox there. But because of legislative requirements for balance in broadcasting, Sky News cannot function the way Fox does. But if he had kept his political power, then pretty soon his agenda would have been to remove the balance rules.

More people are beginning to raise questions about News Corp.'s practices in this country. Do you think Murdoch's U.S. properties will be found to have engaged in criminal behavior?

There are signs that News Corp. may have used private investigators for commercial reasons. The case of Floorgraphics [a U.S. company that sued News Corp. for hacking and anti-competitive practices] is interesting. It's a line worth pursuing.