For one brief moment, it looked as though Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire might be on the brink of collapse.
In the summer of 2011, Britain was in an uproar over revelations that the Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World had hacked the voice-mail messages of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered in 2002. The scandal soon spread to other papers owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. And it nearly jumped the Atlantic, as allegations circulated that Murdoch journalists had tried to listen to cellphone messages of victims of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Yet, in the end, not much happened. Yes, the News of the World was shut down — only to reopen as the Sunday edition of The Sun, a scandal sheet best known for publishing photos of nude models. Several former Murdoch employees went to prison, including Andy Coulson, a top-ranking editor who’d become Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director. Murdoch also had to abandon his dream of taking over the BSkyB satellite broadcasting company. But the empire stood, more or less intact. And now its octogenarian emperor is reportedly seeking to add Time Warner’s vast holdings to his realm.
Which is why Nick Davies’s “Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch” is a valuable addition to our understanding of the Australian press baron. It was Davies, a reporter for The Guardian, who broke the Dowler story. But that was merely the culmination of two years of reports he had written about phone-hacking by the Fleet Street tabloids, a scandalous practice indulged in mainly but not exclusively by News Corp. Davies’s tale encompasses everything from police bribery and sleazy private investigators to the old man himself taking a shaving-cream pie in the face. It even features a villain with the pitch-perfect name of Neville Thurlbeck.
Davies possesses the British gifts for colorful description and invective. His chapter on Murdoch henchwoman Rebekah Brooks’s June 2009 wedding paints a vividly unflattering picture of Britain’s political and media aristocracy. I particularly like Davies’s passage about Oxfordshire, Cameron’s political base, as “a kind of Camelot, the new stamping ground of the consciously casual Conservative elite: a land of cocaine and shepherd’s pie, where the very rich and famous live a baggy-jeans-and-T-shirt kind of life.”
Unfortunately, the narrative is at times bewildering, especially for American readers who are unfamiliar with every twist and turn. Seemingly no fact goes unmentioned, no name unnamed. Still, the sheer accumulation of details adds to the strength of Davies’s indictment.
The odds faced by Davies and The Guardian were considerable. The Press Complaints Commission, a trade group ostensibly set up as a self-regulatory watchdog, proved more a lapdog. Scotland Yard was of little help — the police were either taking payoffs from Murdoch journalists or afraid of having their sexual peccadilloes exposed (or both).
Worst of all, Britain’s political leaders were thoroughly compromised by their dealings with the Murdoch press. Davies describes the withering hatred that would be directed toward News Corp.’s enemies as “monstering,” and it had an enormously deleterious effect on public policy. Tony Blair, Davies tells us, may have supported the war in Iraq in order to appease Murdoch. Gordon Brown, less in the tank than his predecessor, nevertheless backed away from some of his left-wing positions as a sign of deference.
It was Cameron, though, who went all in, not only hiring the ice-cold former News of the World editor Coulson, but also befriending Brooks and supporting Murdoch’s quest to raise his stake in BSkyB from 39 percent to 100 percent. Had it not been for the Milly Dowler story, Murdoch surely would have succeeded.
One of Davies’s most shocking revelations was that a News of the World hacker had erased some of Milly Dowler’s voicemails, raising her family’s hopes that she was still alive. So The Guardian was thrown off stride, and momentum was lost, when the authorities later said they could not confirm if that had actually happened.
More bad news came when the Leveson Inquiry — highly publicized hearings into tabloid excesses by News Corp. and other Fleet Street papers — ended with little other than some toothless recommendations. Davies laments that “the elite simply took back their power, as if we had never challenged it.”
The role of the press in a free society is to hold the government and other major institutions to account. “Hack Attack” is an important reminder of the evils that can result when the media itself becomes so powerful and corrupt that it is accountable to no one — least of all to the public whose interests they are intended to serve.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.” His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net.