The humiliation of Rupert Murdoch

Dial M for Murdoch: NewS Corporation and the Corruption of Britain

by by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Allen Lane, $29.95 pb, 354 pp, 9781846146046

It all began with Prince William’s knee. Not, of course, the phone hacking and bribery and corruption which, as we all now know, was commonplace behaviour in the British tabloid newspapers at the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire – that had been going on for far longer. But when, in November 2005, the News of the World carried a trivial story about the prince – ‘Royal Action Man’ – receiving treatment for a strained tendon, he and Prince Charles’s staff realised that this and other leaks could only have come from someone accessing his voicemail. St James’s Palace, fearing a security threat to a future king, called in the Metropolitan Police.

Thus began a sequence of inquiries that would, eventually, six years later, after a desperate fight against huge odds by a motley collection of unlikely allies, lead to the closure of the highest selling newspaper in the world, huge losses in revenue and prestige for its parent company, News Corporation, and the public humiliation of Rupert and James Murdoch, its hitherto all-powerful and invulnerable proprietor and his heir-apparent.

The complicated, gripping, and deeply shocking story of how this came about is told in great and sometimes laborious detail here by Tom Watson, the backbench Labour MP and former minister whose own maltreatment by the Murdoch press fuelled his obsessive determination to expose its wicked ways, and Martin Hickman, a journalist on the Independent who took up the story. Their book has been written fast, and it shows. Their prose is inelegant, there are clumsy repetitions, and there is little attempt to contextualise, analyse, or reflect. But as a first draft of history, this solid factual account of how the British Establishment – the royal family, leading politicians of all parties, the cabinet, parliament, the police, the legal profession, the media – as well as a string of individuals ranging from show business and sports stars to crime victims and their families – were undermined, exploited, and abused over at least a decade is the most important cautionary tale of recent times.

The Prince William connection led to the first arrest of a News International journalist, the veteran royal reporter Clive Goodman, who was found guilty of invasion of privacy and jailed in January 2007, along with the private investigator, Goodman’s source and hacker-in-chief, Glenn Mulcaire. As a result, Andy Coulson, Editor of News of the World, was forced to resign. With two scapegoats behind bars (though still comfortably on the Murdoch payroll), the cover story of the solitary ‘rogue reporter’ was formulated and adhered to with astonishing mendacity and effrontery by the Murdochs and their spokesmen for the next five years. The police were complicit in the cover-up; they confiscated a huge amount of material – some 11,000 pages of notes – from Mulcaire’s home and office, and compiled from it a list of 418 potential victims of phone hacking, including the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, and three senior Metropolitan police officers. These papers were stored in bin bags at Scotland Yard and the investigation went no further, even though, as Watson and Hickman put it, there was clear evidence of ‘an industrial-scale intrusion into the private lives of newsworthy individuals’. At Wapping there was a collective sigh of relief.

The cover-up very nearly worked. That it did not was largely because two men, Tom Watson and Guardian reporter Nick Davies, would not let it alone. Watson was a rotund, volatile character, a Labour MP since 2001 who had been savaged by the tabloid Sun (edited at the time by Rebekah Wade, later Brooks) after he shifted his allegiance from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown in 2006. The Sun called him ‘treacherous […] A tub of lard […] poisonous’, and its political editor warned him that he would be pursued by the Murdoch press for the rest of his life. When Watson was appointed to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, thus finding a base from which to ask uncomfortable questions, News International was not pleased. According to Watson, Brown phoned to tell him that Rupert Murdoch had asked Blair to ‘call Watson off’. Oddly enough, Brown subsequently could not recall this, and Blair has denied it. As Watson relates (writing about himself in the third person, as does Hickman), he was vulnerable, then and later, to such bullying; which, along with signs of surveillance, fuelled panic and paranoia that worried his friends and strained his marriage. Most of the campaigners received similar treatment.

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Rupert Murdoch's apology letter to victims of the News of the World hacking scandal, published on 15 July 2011 in UK national newspaper

Davies, on the other hand, an experienced investigative freelance reporter writing regularly for the Guardian (Michael Gawenda lured him to Melbourne for a spell at The Age), knew what to expect. If he is one of the heroes of this tale, so is his editor, Alan Rusbridger, who supported Davies, often against his colleagues’ advice and in the teeth of indifference from other serious newspapers, as Davies slowly built his case. Davies became aware of the unexamined Mulcaire papers, then learned of a huge pay-out from News International to a sporting figure who was unlikely to have been hacked by a royal correspondent. Davies’ story, published in July 2009, was, write Watson and Hickman, ‘the single most important story in the phone hacking scandal’. It contained the first mention of the ‘For Neville’ email, which, despite News International’s determined and continuing efforts to delete such material, had survived, and made clear that the News of the World editors and advisors knew perfectly well that the ‘rogue reporter’ cover-up was a lie.

The trouble was that there was little appetite among politicians or the police to pursue the case, which was rubbished by, among others, a new Times columnist, Andy Hayman, who just happened to have recently resigned from Scotland Yard after leading the royal hacking investigation. Perhaps the most unnerving revelation in this book concerns the web of connections between News International journalists and executives and the police, many of whom were not just entertained but were given many lucrative favours over the years. As such facts emerged – and eventually two top policemen were forced to resign – the British public felt a deep unease. People knew better than to trust or look up to journalists, but had hoped that the police were, by and large, different. The phone hacking scandal proved otherwise.

Despite Watson’s and Davies’ efforts, by early in 2010 the trail had gone cold. They had some useful allies, notably a dogged group of lawyers, who had begun trying to use the civil courts to open up hacking cases (including the persecution of a tabloid favourite, the actress Sienna Miller) and an unlikely hero, Max Mosley (son of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley), whose loathing of the News of the World after it exposed his sexual activities and wrecked his family led him to back the campaign with his considerable fortune. But it was Rusbridger’s bold decision to encourage the New York Times to send a team of reporters to look into the story that moved the game forward. When they published their findings in September 2010, under the headline ‘Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond’, based on over 100 interviews with journalists, police, and lawyers, they produced conclusive evidence of ‘a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors’. News International’s response was to deny everything and assert that the attack was motivated by commercial rivalry.

By this time, of course, the Tory David Cameron was leading the new coalition government with the support of Rupert Murdoch and his protégée Rebekah Brooks, who had recently married an old school friend and country neighbour of Cameron’s. Cameron’s new director of communications, leading press aide, and architect of his government’s media strategy was the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Despite a series of warnings, Cameron, with characteristic insouciance, declined to take seriously the revelations by Davies or the New York Times about criminal behaviour at the newspaper under Coulson. It remained more important to him to keep the Murdoch media onside. As for another Tory old Etonian, the mayor of London Boris Johnson, he dismissed the mounting evidence as ‘a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour Party’.

Over Christmas 2010, Cameron was in his Oxfordshire constituency socialising with the Brooks and James and Elizabeth Murdoch. But by the end of January 2011 Andy Coulson had resigned, brought down for the second time by revelations of the kind of journalism he had fostered. During 2011 the tide finally turned against the Murdochs and their allies, and the cover-up was swept away. With it went News Corporation’s hopes of pulling off the takeover of BSkyB, the biggest and potentially most profitable deal of Rupert Murdoch’s life. It was one more phone hacking story broken by Davies in the Guardian that finished it off. He discovered that the News of the World had hacked the voicemail messages of Milly Dowler, the schoolgirl murdered in 2002, and that her parents had believed that she might still be alive after some messages were deleted. (It later turned out that the deletions were not made by the newspaper, a small correction made much of in the United Kingdom and Australia by the Murdoch press.) The Dowler revelations caused a wave of revulsion that could not be ignored, forcing Cameron to abandon Brooks and the Murdochs, the BSkyB bid to be suspended, and advertisers to flee from all Murdoch papers in alarm. It was, Watson and Hickman indicate, as much financial realism as moral outrage that lay behind the closure of the News of the World and, eventually, Brooks’s resignation. She left, she said, ‘with the happiest of memories and an abundance of friends’ – along with £1.7 million, an office, and a car. She has subsequently been arrested on charges of obstructing the course of justice.

It was in July 2011 that the Deputy Sergeant at Arms, a parliamentary official, took the tube casually dressed so as not to raise alarm and summoned James and Rupert Murdoch to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. At first they declined; later they agreed. Watson had his reward, politely questioning them both as they defended nearly six years of indefensible lying and intimidation. This book does not end, though, on a triumphalist note. Inquiries and lawsuits continue, the Murdoch press is regrouping, the Sun has launched a Sunday edition in place of the News of the World, and the Leveson Inquiry into press conduct and standards continues to embarrass politicians almost daily.

Big questions remain. How was it that Rupert Murdoch’s operations undermined and corrupted the British establishment and institutions so completely? Will the dismal failures of media regulators be put right? Will the tabloid press become less ruthless and intimidatory? Will politicians in every country where Murdoch operates realise that they must now, with all the evidence provided by this book, stand up to him at last? In Australia recently, reminded that Murdoch controls seventy per cent of the Australian press (forty per cent still in Britain), I looked for encouraging signs and found none.

Anne Chisolm

Anne Chisolm

Anne Chisholm is the author of several biographies, most recently Frances Partridge: The Biography (2009). With her late husband, Michael Davie (a former Editor of The Age), she co-authored Beaverbrook: A Life (1992). She lives in London and Oxfordshire, and is the current chair of the Royal Society of Literature.