Two years ago this month, I was in England visiting my stepson and his family in Manchester. Besides getting a first look at my grandson, one of the best things about being in England again was the ability to walk into any little market and pick up copies of British newspapers, my favorite having for more than 20 years been The Guardian.
Just a couple of days before my wife and I arrived that summer, Davies, a Guardian reporter with an impressive résumé, had broken another story in the series he had been investigating about the hacking of the palace phones by a reporter at News of the World, Clive Goodman. The original story appearing in January 2009 had it that Goodman had hired a private eye to do the actual dirty work. Goodman was fired and jailed and so was the private eye. The upshot from the powers-that-be was that Goodman was a rogue who nobody in charge at the newspaper had had the slightest clue that he was doing what he was doing. An editor resigned, pleading ignorance but responsibility. An investigation by the police found nothing beyond the reporter-gone-wild story. And that was that.
But the story had by July 2009 blossomed into something bigger thanks to Davies's dogged digging. Turned out there wasn't just one reporter and a detective-for-hire involved, but a rookie reporter assisting Goodman by transcribing some hacked voicemails and sending these along to a veteran reporter at the News of the World. Plus an executive in the loop telling the rookie what to do. Plus another executive who had signed a bonus agreement with the private eye if a certain story came to fruition. So this wasn't about a rogue at all. It appeared the barrel had more than one rotten apple.
I devoured this stuff. My family looked at me as if I were mad every time I repeated at least three times a day: "I'll bet this goes all the way to Rupert himself" and "Why don't we have some Nick Davieses at home?" Who? they asked, feigning interest.
James Murdoch paid the victims off. The police did another cursory investigation, said they'd found nothing new and life went on as usual at News of the World. You can read about how some of this played out here.
Davies kept plugging away, writing dozens of stories that were mostly ignored even by the rest of the British media not owned by News International. The lack of traction didn't stop him. He didn't win all his Journalist of the Year awards by giving up when obstacles arose, even when one of the obstacles was the Murdoch media empire, well known for smearing and otherwise getting even with its foes. And now, in no small part because he did keep plugging away, that empire is teetering, if just a bit.
Amy Goodman, another dogged journalist who deserves more credit than she gets, interviewed Davies today. Here's an excerpt, but I urge you to read it all:
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Nick Davies, many of us here in the United States who watched the hearings this week were really surprised at the extent to which the members of Parliament really were dogged in their questioning and fairly confrontational in their questioning. Could you explain to us the degree of change that’s occurred among these MPs versus how they treated the Murdoch empire in the past?
NICK DAVIES: OK, you look at it this way. For the last two or three years, while we’ve been trying to get this story out, there’s been a maximum of four members of Parliament who were willing to stand up and talk about it. That’s out of a total of about 630.
Take as an example, there’s a guy called Chris Bryant. He’s been very good on this. Back in March 2003, he was a member of one of those parliamentary select committees. And he had in front of him, as witnesses, Rebekah Brooks, the then-editor of The Sun, previously editor of the News of the World, and her close friend and fellow editor, Andy Couslon, who’s the guy who goes to work for David Cameron. Way back there in March 2003, Chris Bryant asked a brave question. He said to Rebekah, "Have you ever paid the police for information?" And she, not considering the impact of her reply, said, "Yes, we have paid the police in the past." Now this was dynamite. You’re not supposed to admit to paying bribes to police officers. OK, that was March.
In December 2003, the Murdoch press exposed Chris Bryant. They accused him of what is in their ghastly moral framework a crime, which was that he was gay. And they published a photograph of him wearing a skimpy pair of underpants. They did that to humiliate that man, that politician, that elected politician, to punish him for daring to ask a difficult question and provoking a difficult answer. And that is a microcosm of why most of the rest of the 630 elected MPs stayed quiet and why the police go quiet and the news organizations go quiet. The Murdoch organization deals in power. And part of that power is about frightening people. […]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Nick Davies, I’d like to ask you about two other things that were kind of overshadowed in the hearings with the Murdochs and with Rebekah Brooks. One was the testimony of Sir Paul Stephenson, the now-resigned head of Scotland Yard, and the other was a press statement that was put out by the law firm that the Murdochs—that had supposedly—had hired and which held many of the documents that are now raising many major questions. First of all, about Sir Paul Stephenson, one of the shocking things in his testimony was that 10 out of the 45 employees of the press office of Scotland Yard were former employees of News of the World. Could you talk about this incestuous relationship between Scotland Yard and the News Corporation properties in England?
NICK DAVIES: OK, so if you see this in context, the reality of life in this country for some decades has been: you can’t run a government and you can’t run a police force unless you are on close, friendly terms with the Murdoch organization. So, there are all sorts of connections between the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard—that’s biggest police force in the country—and News International, which owns Murdoch’s newspapers in this country. And so, the fact that ex-journalists were being employed by their press office is part of that picture. But there’s a whole set of connections.
And to me, what’s so revealing about this story is what—the sequence is this, you see? You have News of the World journalists going out there breaking the law, routinely, and they’re allowed to get away with it. But then they make a terrible mistake: they hack into the voicemail of the one group of people who are more prestigious or powerful than the Murdochs. That’s the royal family. They get caught hacking Prince William’s phone. So, finally, the police have to come in and do something, like their job. But at that point, when the police have the option of gathering evidence to show how much crime was being committed by Murdoch’s people, they chose not to. They did a little job on the royal family as victims. They sent the royal correspondent of the paper to prison. They sent the investigator to prison. And the rest, of all the evidence that they collected during that inquiry, they didn’t properly investigate, because they didn’t want to get into a fight with that powerful organization. And then, you see the seriousness of that, that they were exempted from normal law enforcement just because they’re so powerful. Really, really wrong.
Live long and prosper, Nick.
You can follow him on Twitter at @Bynickdavies