Nick Davies broke the News of the World phone hacking story in the United Kingdom.
In conversation with Matthew Ricketson, Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra, Davies reveals the nail-biting story of an investigative journalist's quest, a shining example of the might of good journalism. Hack Attack tells the story of what happened when truth caught up with power.
Event: Author Talk: Hack Attack by Nick Davies
Location: National Library of Australia
Speaker/s: Margy Burn, Nick Davies and Matthew Ricketson
Margy Burn: Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Margy Burn and I’m the Assistant Director General responsible for Australian collections and reader services here at the National Library and it’s good to see so many of you here on a ... one of our early wintry nights. And that’s a really good cue to say if you’ve got a phone ... we actually had a phone go off just a few moments before we came in so we’ve all reminded ourselves. Before we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and to thank their elders past and present for caring for Canberra, the land we’re now privileged to call home.
This evening we are very fortunate of have British investigative journalist, writer and documentary-maker, Nick Davies, in conversation with the University of Canberra’s Matthew Ricketson. Nick is one of the most influential investigative journalists of our time. Between July 2009 and July 2011 Nick wrote more than 100 articles for The Guardian exposing the phone hacking scandal at News of the World so he’s now become internationally famous. This led to Britain’s Leveson Inquiry into the culture and practices of the press and the closure of the world’s then biggest-selling newspaper and his book, Hack Attack, is the definitive inside story of the scandal. Nick has been named Journalist of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Reporter of the Year in British Press Awards and has won special awards for investigative reporting which are given in memory of Martha Gelhorn, Paul Foote and Tony Bevans. He has an honorary DLit at the London School of Economics and is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Westminster and Goldsmith’s College in London.
And today asking the questions is Professor Matthew Ricketson, a great friend of the Library. Matthew is Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra and has before that worked as a journalist at The Age, The Australian and Time Australia. And I can just say that the National Library and my division is very pleased to be a partner in an Australian Research Council-funded grant in which Matthew is a prime proponent and Chief Investigator which is over three years looking at the complex interplay between economic, technological, workplace and career pressures which are reshaping professional journalism. So tonight we will hear how and if the media has changed since the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, what’s the future for newspapers, the internet and investigative journalism? And there will be an opportunity for questions from the audience at the end of the conversation between Matthew and Nick and I’m sure you’ll have questions that you want to ask. So now please join me in welcoming Nick Davies and Matthew Ricketson in conversation tonight.
Matthew Ricketson: Thanks very much for that generous introduction, Margy, it is really a terrific privilege for us to be here. I was ... when this opportunity came up it was originally through the Auckland Writers’ Festival and they contacted me among other people in Australia to see if we were interested in Nick Davies coming to Australia to ... as part of his antipodean tour and I said are we interested? Of course we are and he must come to Canberra, not simply Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane. And so you know with that in mind I was thinking about well it’s good ... it would be really good and important for the students at the University of Canberra to do some work with Nick which they will be doing tomorrow but equally important for him to come to a place like a national library where there is a regular series of events engaging with issues of the day, with fiction, with nonfiction and so on and so that was the kind of seed of this and I’m really grateful that the National Library agreed to work with us at the University of Canberra to put this event on. And so with that background I’ll come to you, Nick, to ... I’m ... I wanted to talk about the background of the book and where it came from but first the thing that occurs to me as being such a decorated journalist yourself and you’ve now not only made a name but an international reputation for not trashing the reputation but excoriating the reputation of your fellow journalists. How does that feel and what do they think about it?
Nick Davies: Well not all of them friendly. Actually it feels a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. I think I probably did something that you could say was borderline unethical. Right at the beginning of this saga I got hold of some paperwork which included the names of I think 24 journalists from Murdoch’s News of the World ... 27 of them and four from his daily paper, The Sun, and it was clear from the paperwork that those 31 journalists has been commissioning illegal activity from a particular private investigator. And I didn’t publish their names and that was a little bit because I don’t think you should blame the foot soldiers for what the generals tell them to do and these were relatively junior people but actually if I’m honest it was because they were from my profession and I felt very uneasy about dumping my so to speak colleagues in trouble. And I think probably that was borderline unethical, I think if they’d been you know civil servants or members of a corporation or something I would have been more inclined to name them and so it has been tricky all the way through and it has felt uncomfortable. On the other hand ... so to pull back I think a huge number of journalists are glad that we, ie The Guardian, have been trying to clear the crime and the unethical ruthless behaviour out of journalism because they don’t want to be like that. But what you get on the other end of the spectrum is a small core of very aggressive, dishonest, spiteful people who work at the dark end of Fleet Street and possibly also here in Australia and who are vicious and that can be an unpleasant experience. I should say I’ve had no problem at all from journalists here but in Britain you know I’ve read things about myself in newspapers which are just staggering and quite alarming ...
Matthew Ricketson: What do you mean? What ...
Nick Davies: So I woke up a few months ... this book was published in the UK back in July. A couple of months later I woke up and I was Googling my name, not because I’m an egomaniac but because I was looking for reviews of the book and I discovered that the Daily Mail, this very right wing daily newspaper had written something about me. It turned out to be 3,000 words, that’s an awful lot of words. That’s three full pages in the printed paper that Saturday morning with a big picture of me and this piece denounced me as an enemy of the free press and went on to explain that I’m utterly unreliable and that you really can’t believe a single thing I write. And it’s kind of ... your first reaction I think is to feel frightened ‘cause if people believe this ... I’ve only got one reputation and that’s it, trashed. And it could actually make a difference to one’s ability to work you know I turn up on somebody’s doorstep, oh, you’re that enemy of the free press who makes things up and the door closes. And so I think I felt scared and then I felt angry that this was ... I went through it and I made a list of all the bad things they were saying about me, there was about 15 of them and then I looked at it and thought well how many of those are true honestly? And honestly I reckon the answer was zero. This is just ... am I allowed to use a technical term? Real shit. And so I ... so then I called my editor, Alan, who’s a friend, Alan Rusbridger, who’s been editing The Guardian for years and I called a former girlfriend who is a sort of spin doctor, she advises politicians how to handle the media. I said what am I supposed to do about this? And they said there is no point in doing anything, A, it’s like wrestling with an octopus, you’ll never get justice out of a newspaper like that, they won’t correct it and B, what’s the point? ‘Cause nobody will believe it, they will simply say typical Daily Mail. And insofar as any of you may have read it, I hope that’s what you thought.
Matthew Ricketson: What sort of things were they saying? Were they talking about your journalistic work or were they talking about you know personal ...
Nick Davies: This was an attack on my journalism but really ... I mean we could get into the detail of it but it would take you away from this but it was really not okay, not substantiated. On other occasions I’ve had a little bit of Murdoch journalists poking around in the private life which ... I mean ... just to explain, I did a lot of work on uncovering the hacking scandal and all that went with it, the abuse of power, but there were other people involved as well, some very good lawyers who were suing on behalf of the victims of the phone hacking and some ... a few politicians and two of the lawyers and one of the politicians had the experience of Murdoch’s people in London hiring a private investigator who specialises in covert surveillance. He’s a funny guy actually, he calls himself silent shadow although his real name is Derek. Anyway they had the old silent shadow on their heels secretly videoing them and what he is trying to do is what the Murdoch reporters working on private life were trying to do, they’re trying to find you having sex with somebody you’re not married to. Or even conceivably you’re married to them but you’re doing something that you know isn’t written down in the Bible. Actually the Bible’s quite imagin ... no, you understand the point.
And I mean he was actually you know he was ... two of these lawyers and Tom Watson, the MP, he’s following them, he’s videoing them and you stand back and look at it and say what’s going on here? So we collectively are exposing a scandal, we were onto it, we were onto the truth and we got the truth out. Just supposing one of us is having an affair with somebody we’re not married to, how would that affect ... what does that reflect about the truth we’re telling? Nothing, it’s an illegitimate tactic, it’s about causing people pain, humiliation, punishment, to deter them from digging, it’s really, really out of order and luckily they didn’t come up with anything on any of us, they tried and didn’t find. That’s because we live the lives of monks as you would expect.
Matthew Ricketson: Okay, I ... there is a ... I wanted ... as I said I wanted to come back to the beginning but I can’t leave the sex thing alone for a minute.
Nick Davies: Speak for yourself.
Matthew Ricketson: Because it seemed to me in reading the book, there seemed to be an inordinate number of politicians, lawyers, other people in public life who had either been having adulterous affairs or doing things outside the realms of the Bible or whatever and I thought to myself is this something peculiarly English or is it in fact to do with the way in which Fleet Street as it’s known operates and I couldn’t quite work that out.
Nick Davies: Oh no, it’s the latter so the dark end of Fleet Street loves exposing people’s sex lives because sadly it sells newspapers. There’s an odd contradiction in public opinion in Britain that the public are out there buying those newspapers and yet when the opinion polls are done about the Leveson Inquiry and whether or not newspapers should stop invading people’s privacy huge majority, 70, 80% of the population say this has to stop. But I mean maybe that’s just human you know we often like doing things we know we shouldn’t and that’s the public but it’s a commercial game but it ... there’s a couple of other things that need to be said about it. A, it is genuinely a cruel thing to do to someone so while I was researching the book I got to know a man called Max Mosley who’s now in his early 70s who runs Formula 1 racing and ... you may know this but it is just worth drawing attention to it, that the News of the World discovered that he was hiring prostitutes to do some sort of sex games and they paid one of the prostitutes to hide a video camera, a mini mini camera in her bra so they filmed Max having sex with this women.
Now I would say ... they would disagree with me ... I would say you should not be doing this story, there is no ... you don’t need to tell the public that the man who’s running Formula 1 racing also has sex with prostitutes, it has no reflection on his work, there is no public interest in exposing this story. They would disagree with me. Even if they’re right, let’s just imagine they’re right, that story needs to be told, why are you videoing him? Well there’s one reason why, if the story’s legitimate you would do that so that he can’t deny it and sue you, right? But they went much further than that, they edited the highlights from that video and stuck it on the website. Now that is gratuitous cruelty. You imagine your naked body there for millions to see, naked and having sex, it’s just so invasive and Max said to me when I was talking to him about it, they were trying to destroy my life. Why? Because it sells papers.
But then the next thing to observe is that that has an enormous importance in understanding the power of a man like Rupert Murdoch because a significant part of that power is built on fear, not ... ordinary people aren’t frightened of Rupert Murdoch but those in what ... the power elite are frightened because all those MPs and captains of industry and trade union leaders have seen others in their group who’ve had that experience of having their sex life splashed across the front page of a newspaper, they’ve seen the pain and so they don’t have to be told to be careful of Rupert, they start to adopt this position of placating him, let’s not get into a fight with that guy and that is the source of a great deal of that man’s power. And it’s got nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of public debate, it’s a distorting factor in ... certainly in Britain’s public life in really quite a serious way.
Matthew Ricketson: You could be forgiven for thinking there’s an element in which it’s used as either blackmail or as a protection racket which may be stating it quite strongly but there’s ... if you hold that weapon over someone’s head that this is where it may go and as you say they’ve all seen what’s happened to Mosley or many other people then ...
Nick Davies: Well .. so I think there’s a minority of cases where I believe it’s true that his people have collected embarrassing information on powerful people and have held it back. Because they’ve held it back it’s pretty difficult to talk about it, A, ‘cause I’d be invading their privacy and B, because they might ... I mean I might be wrong and they might sue me but there is an example of a politician who I was told on pretty good authority was filmed doing some dodgy stuff with a prostitute in a hotel room and I was told that as a result of that that politician who would not normally be a Murdoch ally had spoken up in his favour in public on a particular issue and certainly that much is provable and true. This guy who you wouldn’t expect to be a Murdoch ... and there are a couple of other examples in the book that I’ve given anonymously where people close to the organisation that it wasn’t a question of the journalist turning up a story which would sell newspapers and you have the indirect knock-on effect of creating fear, that they collected material, put it on a safe and used it simply as a blackmail lever.
And then the ... there’s another thing they talk about, the Murdoch crew, some of them which is more like whitemail so for example our deputy prime minister, John Prescott, married to a woman for 30 or 40 years, The Sun discovered that before she married John, his wife had had a baby and had given it up for adoption. And I think maybe at that stage what had happened was that this long lost baby, a boy, had traced the mother. Okay so John Prescott’s wife is reunited with the long lost son that she gave up when he was born and The Sun found out about it ... and this isn’t blackmail, this is what they call whitemail. Rebekah Brooks who was then editing The Sun agreed not to do the story. Prescott said please, please, please, I know you’ve found out about it but don’t publish it so she didn’t. Now you could say first of all that was a decent thing to do, I think it probably was ... that’s a decent thing but it does create a feeling of obligation on John Prescott’s part which is not such a bad thing to have in the corridors of power so that’s the softer end of it. I don’t know whether you ... I think we probably shouldn't be condemning that but it just ... power has all sorts of roots.
Matthew Ricketson: And the flipside of the kind of ... what you were talking about with the investigation that can be held and perhaps used against someone, that sort of side of it, and you hold something up your sleeve, there’s an Australian journalist, Chris Masters, very well-known investigative journalist in this country and one of the things he learned many years ago ... he’s written about this and talked about this publicly when he did stories uncovering corruption Queensland in the 1980s was that it was always useful to def ... in the defending of defamation cases and so on against you to have something up your sleeve so that you could show that as a ... you not only had the evidence you put to air but you had other stuff so that if someone really came after you you could say well we’re not you know we’ve got more, we’re not mucking around. What do you think about that?
Nick Davies: I think that’s a slightly overcomplicated way of operating, I mean if you’re working on a story where you genuinely feel this should be put into the public domain, if you’ve got it I’d say publish it. I think it seems weird to hold something back so that you could use as a defensive weapon, I just ... within the bounds of honesty and public interest for want of a less pompous way of putting it, I’d stick it in the public domain, let’s keep publishing.
Matthew Ricketson: Can you go back to when you first became involved in the story, I’m interested in what excited your curiosity to begin with and also how ... well who else was working on it? If anyone and what was that like at that point?
Nick Davies: That’s three questions.
Matthew Ricketson: Yes, I’m doing a Kerry O’Brien, I’m sorry. I’ll remind you if you like ...
Nick Davies: Okay, you might have to. But about eight years ago, something like that, I published a book called Flat Earth News which was an attempt to explain why news organisations so often produce stories that contain falsehood, distortion and propaganda. It started off with those famous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and became a much bigger project. While I was researching that I had to talk to reporters from other newspapers to find out what had gone on in the background that explained various stories that they’d published that were wonky and they started telling me about the crimes that some of them were involved in. And The Guardian is a very ... which ... for which I work is a very soft newspaper so ...
Matthew Ricketson: What do you mean by that?
Nick Davies: Well what it comes down to is it belongs to a trust so there’s very little pressure ... let’s look at the other end of the spectrum ... the newspapers which are most ruthless belong to profit-hungry corporations and they need ... and the ones that get ruthless are the mass circulation newspapers who are out there fighting in this enormously lucrative newspaper market we have in the UK, 60 million people who ... just one massive national newspaper market. You basically have city newspapers here, it’s quite different .. so if you work for one of those newspapers the pressure to sell more copies translates into a pressure on the reporters, you have to go out and get that information and don’t come back in the office unless you’ve got it, there’s a lot of bullying in those offices. Whereas The Guardian belongs to a trust so we have to survive in a marketplace but we ... that commercial imperative is very much reduced. We own other businesses which make a bit of money, put it in the middle ‘cause it doesn’t have to go to shareholders and it subsidises us so if I’m sent out to get some information and I don’t get it, I come back in, I say oh incidentally I didn’t get that information. Well never mind, do something else. It’s just much, much more relaxed so we haven’t had to get out and start hiring private investigators to do dodgy things. It’s not that we’re morally righteous, I’m not ... that’s ... it’s really ... that’s the opposite point that I’m making, it’s just that we haven’t had to do it.
So talking to these reporters, I find out they’re doing all this crime, I stuck a chapter in that book about it then I’m on the radio talking about it and people who produce radio programs love producing heat rather than light, they love to create conflict. So I ... they got into the studio, this creature from The News of the World, Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor who’s a dark and aggressive man. It’s funny actually ‘cause if you listen to the radio you will hear people arguing in what you think is a studio. It’s certainly ... the way they set this up with me and Kuttner, we’re not in the studio at all, I’m in one studio and he’s about 100m away in another studio in case we start hitting each other but it’s all merged sound-wise. So I talked a little bit about the crime that I’d been finding out about and he attacked me verbally and said I came from another planet, he didn’t understand what I was talking about. One reporter from The News of the World had once been caught and he’d gone to prison but that was the full extent of anybody’s knowledge of any crime and that was true, in the background the royal reporter of The News of the World had been busted for voicemail hacking. Well the point is that that man, Stuart Kuttner, made a big mistake that morning because what he said was so dramatically false that he provoked somebody I had never heard of into getting in touch with me and that source became an invaluable guide.
That source knew two key things, one, that The News of the World had been systematically breaking the law, routinely, day after day after day, thousands of victims and secondly, most important, that the police were sitting on detailed evidence which proved this systematic commission of crime but had chosen not to investigate it. So immediately if you ask what’s interesting about the story, it’s not just a story about reporters breaking the law, as soon as you know that the police are sitting on the evidence you’re moving into what’s really important about it which is power, that thing I was talking about, the fear surrounding Rupert Murdoch. Why would the police not investigate? And then once we start publishing actually attack us verbally.
They don’t want to get into a fight with Rupert and then when you follow it through, which is what I’ve done in the book more than in The Guardian stories, you can see the same thing happening in the corridors of power, our government, your government, maybe to some extent the American, other governments around the world being told what to do by this man. Like I said the British government is frequently told what to do by a former Australian with an American passport and we're all sitting there thinking oh well let’s vote for a government, maybe it’ll do what we want, it’s so wrong, it’s breathtaking, it’s outrageous. That’s where it gets interesting, is once you get into the power elements of it. I mean the crime’s quite you know George Clooney’s making a film of this?
Matthew Ricketson: Who’s playing you?
Nick Davies: We don’t know, it’s all a mystery but ...
Matthew Ricketson: George Clooney maybe?
Nick Davies: Somebody young, I presume. So ... no, Cl .. so Clooney’s not in it, he’s directing it but the reason he wants to make a film is because A, you've got a great narrative, I mean you’ve got dodgy tabloid journalists and sleazy private investigators and the royal family and you’ve got a kind of hobbit thing where there’s these sort of ... me and the lawyers and the MPs who are these little furry creatures going after the dragon or whatever it is in his cave, that’s Rupert so ... but also like Clooney’s an interesting guy, he want ... I think he suffers from the fact that he’s so good-looking ‘cause he wants to be taken seriously, he wants to make films that tell you something about the world. And he’s bitten on that, that you can tell a great story and reveal what really goes on in our governments. I ... that to me why it’s worth doing. I’m rambling a bit ‘cause I’ve forgotten what your question was.
Matthew Ricketson: I just want to ... when you said that the tabloid newspapers in Fleet Street, they’re attacking you know whether it’s vicars or whoever are doing dodgy things and you said that The Guardian is soft, I just want to go a little bit further with that ‘cause I mean The Guardian, how soft is it? That The Guardian is the newspaper A, that took on this issue which is a very rare story in media circles, as in to uncover what’s going on in the media, B, was the conduit and reporting agency through which the WikiLeaks material came out and then also more recently the Snowdon stuff so three of the biggest stories of the past decade all deeply challenging of you know of the establishment have been done by this so-called soft newspaper. I just want you to talk a little bit more about that.
Nick Davies: Okay but we can distinguish two different things, I’m saying we’re soft in that we’re not ruthless because there isn’t that commercial pressure to be ruthless, right? Separately from that newspapers are very hierarchical organisations because particularly a daily newspaper, you’re under enormous pressure to hit your deadlines and you’ve got to be constantly making decisions, what stories are we covering? What’s on the front page? How many reporters on that? What’s the intro? What’s the headline? There’s no time for lengthy philosophical debate so what happens is that the editor makes decisions and people run off and do what he says and the desk editors make decisions so afterwards in the pub there may be a degree of shouting. So much more than most organisations a newspaper reflects the character of its leader, its editor and we’ve been very lucky for the last 20 years that Alan who is my friend ... I admit this openly ... but he’s been very, ver ... he’s strong, he’s got a bloody ... he’s got a piece of anatomy which lots of editors don’t have which is a backbone and he’s amazingly calm under pressure so I’ve never, ever seen him lose his temper or freak out or shout. I’ve never even heard him swear unless it’s to use a slightly rude word about somebody working for Murdoch but no so he’s incredibly calm. So he just weathers these storms and that’s very important but do you see what I mean? ‘Cause it’s hierarchical so with the hacking story ... so I’m freelance, I work from home, I play loud music, nobody interferes with me and with this I usually have two or three or four projects on the go at any one time so I was developing the hacking story for about 18 months whilst doing other things before I had it to a point where I definitely had something to publish.
So I go and have lunch with Alan and I say okay, here’s the story, we’re going to take on the most powerful media organisation in the country but also the most powerful political party who’ve inherited the former editor as their key advisor and also the most powerful police force. Oh yeah and also the press regulator, all four in one story. Now there were people at The Guardian who when they heard of this story that we were planning did not want to run it, too much trouble. There was one particular senior guy who did not want to fall out with Rebekah Brooks and the Murdoch crew and ... but Alan was ... he said let’s go for it. There were ... other editors would have ... even if they’d run it would have buried it on page 5 and get rid of it quickly but he ran it in a big way and kept running it and in the early stages we were attacked rather ferociously by the Murdoch company in the UK and by Scotland Yard, we were accused of misleading the British people. Alan and I were hauled up in front of a select committee in the House of Commons and it was scary. And during that phase there were senior people at The Guardian who wanted to back down, apologise and withdraw and he never ever flinched.
Matthew Ricketson: That went on for some time too like the original conviction of the royal reporter and his private investigator I think was 2006 and it ... the Milly Dowler story about the schoolgirl, the young schoolgirl who was eventually found to have been murdered, that came out in 2011 so there’s five years between ...
Nick Davies: Ah but not quite because ... I don’t know whether you know the facts here so there’s a trial very early on when the Buckingham Palace complained to the police because The News of the World have published a couple of stories which were clumsily produced and clearly came from voicemail and just ... that’s back in 2006/7 and then several years passed before I started to get involved so we published the first story July ’09 after I’d been fiddling with it for 18 months and it’s actually a two-year period, July ’09 to July 2011 when I’m doing dozens and dozens of stories and finally, finally we break through.
Matthew Ricketson: And it wasn’t only the Murdoch newspapers and their reporters and editors and so on who were attacking The Guardian but there were also some other quite high-profile and respected as far as I know media commentators such as Stephen Glover who ...
Nick Davies: Stephen Glover and the word respected don’t belong in the same sentence.
Matthew Ricketson: Okay.
Nick Davies: He’s the guy who wrote the Daily Mail thing. We’re not friends.
Matthew Ricketson: No, no, I know that, I know that but he’s not a Murdoch mignon as such, is he?
Nick Davies: No. So we were isolated so we’re trying to publish this wretched story, we keep doing dozens and dozens of them but on the whole with very few exceptions the rest of Fleet Street would not write about it because either they were owned by Rupert Murdoch, these other titles, or even if they weren’t they knew that they themselves were committing the same crimes, ‘cause this was pretty widespread, and then there was a third category of newspapers which support our conservative party who were nervous about the fact that Andy Coulson who had been editing the paper when this crime was committed had left and had gone to work for David Cameron and they didn’t want to embarrass the Tory leadership so you put all that together and there was just this astonishing and intellectually corrupt silence from the rest of Fleet Street. And then that brings in all these characters ... I mean I don’t ... we shouldn't pick particularly on Stephen Glover, poor, defenceless little creature, little slug.
Matthew Ricketson: You are in the antipodes, it’s okay.
Nick Davies: But I think it’s ... I think people feel comfortable in a crowd so there’s ... I think we need to rebel. I was walking around your national portrait gallery early this afternoon and they’ve got this exhibition ... is it called Unusual Australians? Uncommon Australians and I was thinking about them and do you know there are some really, really impressive people there and I was thinking about rebellion and how really that isn’t an optional extra in life. Each of us needs to bloody well think for ourselves and decide what’s important and stand up for it and if you see people moving in a herd as sadly some journalists like to you know herds often move in the wrong direction, everybody feels comfortable, we’re all ... like you look back at that coverage of the weapons of mass destruction, all those news organisations all over this planet, I would think every single news outlet, radio, television and print ran stories saying that there were WMD. And in Britain there was one particular journalist who in that gap after the invasion but before the final admission that they didn’t exist went on BBC radio and said this was all sexed up, that guy was pilloried because he was ... he was telling the truth but he was on his own, he wasn’t in the herd and he ha .. he was very brave and stood up to appalling pressure whereas all those people who got the story wrong have never had to be answerable. And it was the same with this story, okay, we were attacking powerful people but we were bloody well right, we had the truth on our side and it’s just distressing to see a sort of mob of people who just go with the herd, the Stephen Glovers of this world you know there’s always ... wherever you find power you will find people who want to serve power but it just struck particularly powerfully walking around your national portrait gallery. Maybe it’s a bigger thing in Australian culture than British that rebellion isn’t an option, it’s essential. If you’re going to live your life and not other people’s life we need to think for ourselves and stand up for ourselves and be brave.
Matthew Ricketson: Yeah, good point.
Nick Davies: Good for Australia.
Matthew Ricketson: Let’s hope it’s true, let’s hope it’s true. The ... okay so the story eventually does become a huge and international story which you detailed in your book and then that is the moment at which the government led by David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry, exhaustive inquiry and then following it there’ve also been trials. I just want to talk or ask you to talk about a couple of things, one is the upshot of the Leveson Inquiry which was ... the actual report was about 2,000 pages long. I don’t pretend to have read all 2,000 pages but it .. very, very detailed, exhaustive, probably the most detailed examination of the operation of the media, the news media in England that I know of. What’s been the upshot of that? And then we come to the trials of the various people ...
Nick Davies: But first of all it ... it’s a weird thing being a reporter ... I expect there’s reporters in the room ... you put information in the public domain, you have no way of predicting or controlling what will then happen. Some things that happened as a result of this are bad, The News of the World was closed, that was a horrible decision. There were probably about a dozen people at the top of The News of the World who’d been involved in conspiring to break the law but there was a total of 200 people who were thrown out of work by that decision and it was done ruthlessly to protect Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch. So I didn’t ... but on the other end of the scale the Leveson Inquiry itself I thought was wonderful. I mean the day after day in which ... it wasn’t just an inquiry into the media, that was an inquiry into power and to have ... I think there were four prime ministers, numerous chief police officers, editors, those secretive creatures ...
Matthew Ricketson: Murdoch himself.
Nick Davies: ... and civil servants ... and Rupert himself. Was James there at the one ..? I think he was as well. And to be forced to explain what really goes on in the world of power which is you know power conducted with our money and in our name but so secretive and on occasion to have the emails and text messages disclosed so that ... I thought it was wonderful and that you know I thought that was really, really great. So Leveson produces his report but what you do is the report runs into the very powerful forces which he is describing in the report and those newspapers in Fleet Street are used to having their own way so ... I mean it was fascinating to watch them, they really did reproduce the faults which he was describing and complaining about which is a lot to do with falsehood and distortion. So in the weeks leading up to the publication of his report when nobody knew what was in it those newspapers started paying for advertisements in each other’s pages in which they solemnly declared that Leveson was going to recommend state regulation of the press and they were running these photographs of dictators like Mugabe from Zimbabwe and Assad from Syria and The Sun ran a leader column saying these people want government officials to decide what the news is. This is absolute fiction, falsehood, distortion but the report was published, of course Leveson did not ask for state regulation of the press or anything like it. He came up with a very, very clever solution which I would say would significantly have increased the freedom of the press in the UK.
But to accept the Leveson Inquiry newspapers would have had to accept a regulator which they couldn't control which would have required them to abide by the code of conduct which they themselves have written and which they themselves claim to want to work by but they don’t want that, they want the freedom to engage in falsehood and distortion and to film Max Mosley having sex and all the rest of it. So rather than accept the report, rather than accept what I think was a real increase in their freedom of manoeuvre they’ve simply ignored it. And because it wasn’t state regulation ... he was trying to suggest a new voluntary system which would be checked to make sure that it was ... they were setting up something independent from themselves ... they’ve been able to just simply ignore everything he suggested, set up their own intellectually corrupt regulator which is very much like the last one which collapsed under the pressure of the phone hacking scandal. So that’s it, power sits there. You can describe it, you can inquire into it, you can publish a report about it but power hangs onto power.
Matthew Ricketson: The thing that struck me about that process was that everybody agreed that what had happened in the phone hacking scandal was terrible and egregious and you know just about everyone agreed with that. As far as I could work out it was the worst scandal of media ethics in history, I couldn’t find another one that was worse and so if you accepted that then if there was ever a case where there needed to be an improvement in the level of regulation you would have thought that was a lay down massier ...
Nick Davies: You’re treating them as though they’re reasonable and honest organisations.
Matthew Ricketson: Okay. that shows what a pup I am ..
Nick Davies: The shame, there was shame, right? But shame has no impact on the shameless so ... they are shameless people. I mean if you had been in the UK ... maybe some of you were ... during the election campaign which you know the election on May the 7th ... it’s unbelievable like they ... some of these newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Mail behaving like parodies of bad newspapers, not even pretending to be involved in reporting the campaign but engaging in a political project with no journalistic boundaries at all in order to try to prevent a Labor government being elected, it’s just breathtaking the way they behaved.
Matthew Ricketson: So what do ordinary people on the one hand make of all this? They don’t appear to be protesting in the streets and what about groups like Hacked Off which was a sort of ginger group ... people who were ...
Nick Davies: Well so ... I think the first question you ask is really quite an interesting one, I’d be interested to hear what people here think but you asked what ordinary people think of it. I think ordinary people are less and less interested in government and the political world and public debate and so when I was younger people tended to identify themselves in political terms, somebody would say I’m a trade unionist, I’m working class. Now I think people identify themselves as consumers so there’s been a basic detachment, something that’s happened since the sort of Thatcher, Regan, Keating, David Lange era. It’s got something to do with socialism being ejected from the mainstream of public debate so government becomes about how you manage capitalism, the whole spectrum of debate is narrowed. I think it’s got something to do with the way that some newspapers have behaved, that it teaches the public to say to themselves I can’t believe what I read, I don’t believe what this politician says, they just make promises to win elections. I mean look at Tony Abbott flip-flopping over that iron ore issue, the man doesn’t know what he himself thinks. But what it does is it to ... it engenders a kind of cynicism in a huge number of people. I’ve just been with somebody who ... a really lovely and intelligent woman, a British woman who lives here and she says oh I haven’t looked at the news since 2011, I just can’t stand it.
So what do ordinary people think? I think less and less, more and more people are disengaged. That makes them terribly vulnerable to being manipulated by cynical newspapers trying to swing election results but I think there’s something really worrying going on because just ... if I can just extend this rant a little further ... this is happening at the same time as we’ve globalised our economy and our communication systems so the number of things which can have an impact on our lives has significantly increased so if the housing market in Illinois collapses because people have been selling mortgages into the subprime market banks all over the world collapse. If somebody in Vietnam or Mexico develops bird flu or swine flu, those two threatening ... because you’ve got international travel at this sort of scale everybody around the world has to worry about whether they can be infected. You can reproduce that over and over again, globalisation increases the number of things that we need to understand. If this happens at the same time as governments and newspapers get less good at performing their essential functions, the public get less and less engaged, you’ve got a horrible contradiction so you look at say global warming and ISIS, say two huge problems we’ve got on our doorstep, how many people actually understand or have a clear vision of what the solution to those two problems is? I mean it’s ... do you see what I’m trying to say? That we’ve got something really worrying going on, the public debate is sort of slowly disintegrating at the same time as it’s becoming more important than ever, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Matthew Ricketson: Okay, we’re going to come to questions that are from anyone in the audience in a couple of minutes but I would like to ask you about ... there’s a trial going on at the moment, a perjury trial involving Andy Coulson, the former editor of the newspaper which obviously ... can’t say much about that but I am interested in your assessment or analysis of the trial of Rebekah Brooks in particular. Andy Coulson was involved in that one last year as well but what happened in that trial when it looked like you know the evidence about phone hacking happening was overwhelming, some people were convicted but Rebekah Brooks who appeared ... who was very prominent wasn’t. How did that happen?
Nick Davies: Okay so I sat all through that long eight-month trial. There were eight people ... it was slightly confusing watching it ‘cause you had eight people accused of conspiring to intercept voicemail messages, five of them pleaded guilty before the trial started so that they became rather invisible, the fact of their guilt. You had three left in the dock accused of that along with other minor players accused of minor things so that was Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and Stuart Kuttner, my man from the radio show at the beginning, he got himself into trouble in the end. So ... and Andy Coulson was convicted, alright? So you ended up six out of the eight convicted but just comically The Sun and people reported it that there was only one person convicted, they just completely pushed the five early ... the guilty pleas out of the story, it’s just amazing the way they operate. Okay so what ... I think what you’re asking me is why Rebekah Brooks wasn’t convicted.
Matthew Ricketson: Yes.
Nick Davies: Is that right? Okay. So she ... the simple answer to that is she wasn’t convicted because the prosecution didn’t have the evidence to justify convicting so if I had been sitting on that jury I would have returned exactly the same verdict that they did not, not guilty. And I would like to say that that’s okay, that we should give her her verdict. I think there’s a tremendous temptation to assume that we outside know better than that jury did and I don’t think you want to live in a society where somebody gets sent to prison because a lot of people think they must have committed a crime. The state should only be allowed to do that if it can prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and it couldn’t. So then people can speculate and say oh well she must have known, there must be evidence that got lost or destroyed. I don’t think that’s fair, I think we should stand by the system. That trial was a goodun and the jury were amazing. I was sitting opposite them and they ... I was watching them and they were paying attention.
They sometimes wrote little notes for the judge which were way more astute than all the multimillion pound valuable barristers who’d missed points that the jury were spotting but ... and I just ... I’ve got two things to say about this, one is it isn’t a story about Rebekah Brooks, it’s about power and if you ... if it’s important it really doesn’t matter whether Rebekah’s convicted or not. But the other weird thing is this, that I’ve done masses of public meetings in the UK and other countries about this whole saga and it ... I would think every single meeting somebody asks how come Rebekah got off? With the underlying assumption that she was guilty and usually ... Matthew’s an exception obviously ... it’s a woman who asks the question 95% of the time. So this is not necessarily to do with the phone hacking thing but there’s something about Rebekah that irritates other women and I’ve never quite worked out what it is so maybe somebody will tell me. It might be that they think she’s cheated to succeed. I just ... can I say one else ...
Matthew Ricketson: Blokes never do that.
Nick Davies: But why is it that women are so angry with her? I mean you can correct me if you think I’m wrong but it’s ... women are angry with her about something but I wanted to say something about the whole business of those newspapers exposing people’s sex lives, particularly exposing them if they have affairs. The stunning thing that emerged in that context during that trial, there’s Rebekah Brooks and there’s Andy Coulson who for years have been editing newspapers, doing those stories, they’ve made themselves wealthy, successful, powerful by doing that and then we discover that the two of them on and off over an eight-year period had been having an affair while married. I mean that ... the double standards was really, really breathtaking and it expo ... I mean really, that’s not okay.
And it exposed something as well about the bullshit in those newspapers’ justification for their behaviour because they tried to justify it by pretending that we all live on some sort of Victorian template of morality in which none of us would ever want to have sex with anybody unless we were married to them and if we were having sex with somebody we’re married to it’s with the lights off and in some sort of missionary-approved position. Anything beyond that is a scandal which has to be exposed because the public won’t accept anything but they themselves being part of the great British public knew bloody well that that wasn’t the reality of how we all live, life’s much more exciting than that. Actually Max Mosley’s very good, I’ve been at public meetings with him and he likes to quote the ghastly editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, who wrote a leader comment attacking Max after his sex life had been exposed in which the Mail ... the editor, Paul Dacre ... accused Max of engaging in unimaginable depravity and Max pauses and says Paul Dacre hasn’t got much of an imagination. Good for Max for standing up for himself.
Matthew Ricketson: Okay, I now want to take you away from the sex thing and get back to the power thing because just before we come to questions the ... was part of that what happened in the trial, aside from what you’re talking about ...
Nick Davies: Oh yeah, sorry, yeah.
Matthew Ricketson: ... is the fact Murdoch and the people who .. and who worked for him had a kind of Rolls Royce legal team ...
Nick Davies: That’s certainly true. So I’ve been in and out of the Old Bailey, the central criminal court in central London for 35 years, I’ve covered lots of trials there and I have never ever seen a defence as well funded as that one. And there is no question about it, Rupert Murdoch’s money flooded that courtroom and what that means is that in the background the lawyers have a little army of legal elves who are checking everything, looking for anything at all, any discrepancy, any problem with any witness’s evidence so that they can use it in cross-examination. And then there were really brilliant barristers working for the defence and some of the time you sat there and you could just think you know I’m just looking at legal skill of an unbelievable level and it was sort of ... you watched it like you would like at art or a great acting performance. So ... and against that it was a microcosm of the world, of the privatised world that we live in. The state, the underfunded state was in no way equipped to deal with it so I mean there was a point towards the end of the trial where the lead barrister, Andrew Edis, was worried that the jury would be drowning in paperwork. He said we’re going to have to put a desktop compute in the jury room and give them an index, let’s do a chronological index of all the incidents and link each incident to the paperwork so they can find their way through it. And the prosecution service, the state-funded service said well we can’t afford that so Andrew Edis said alright, I’ll pay for it. I mean really, how pathetic that we’ve reduced our criminal justice system to that level but just ... that is ... what I’ve described to you is absolutely true, the enormous Murdoch money, the state pottering along with nothing like equivalent funds. That is the reality of what happened in the court but I don’t think that entitles us to say and that’s way Rebekah got off, just let’s give them their verdicts and move on.
Matthew Ricketson: Okay, that two can coexist ...