Nick Davies Comes to America

A chat with the 'Guardian' reporter who’s become the Woodward and Bernstein of hacking

As the reporter who’s been at the forefront in the investigation into phone hacking by News of the World, the Guardian’s Nick Davies has been a real thorn in Rupert Murdoch’s side. And now things might just get worse for the media mogul. Davies has come to the U.S. looking for evidence of similar malfeasance here. Adweek spoke with Davies last week about what he’s doing on this side of the Atlantic and his feelings on the ongoing scandal.

So why are you here in the States now?

Because it’s possible that there’s an American end to the phone hacking saga, and so I’ve just come to start work on that, to see if there are any leads.

What do you expect to find?

Well, I kind of—is that the wrong way to approach it? I don’t think you can set out with an expectation, because it limits you. So there’s questions to ask, aren’t there? Is it possible that when U.K.-based Murdoch journalists have come to this country on stories they’ve engaged in the kind of illegal activity for which they were responsible in the U.K.? Second, is it possible that Murdoch journalists who are permanently based in the U.S. have been engaging in that kind of stuff? Is it possible that on the commercial side Murdoch’s businesses have been using investigators to do illegal things? And broader than that, there’s a level of the story in the U.K. which is simply about manipulation and bullying of democratically elected politicians. So any of those four areas are worth asking questions about… I’ve been in town three days, so I wouldn’t begin to claim to have answers.

I assume you saw the report in Metro [a U.K. newspaper] about David Leigh, the Guardian editor who wrote an article admitting that he’d used voicemail hacking?

Oh, yeah. Pathetic… You saw Metro, which is a notoriously understaffed and badly resourced news organization (laughs) getting hold of a cutting from a story that the Guardian published some years ago and recycling that cutting and calling it an exclusive. I mean, that’s pathetic. That’s just so sad. Metro should hang their heads in shame for calling an old story out of another newspaper an exclusive.

But beyond that, the issue is that Fleet Street as a whole, not just the Murdoch newspapers, has been hugely involved in illegal activity. To the extent that we’ve uncovered it, you can see a very clear pattern, where it’s the mass-circulation tabloids who are most heavily involved—I would say they are promiscuously involved—in illegal activity, and then as you move up the quality scale, you find the quality Sunday newspapers have tended to be involved. So the Observer, which is the Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, had a track record under a former editor of commissioning private investigators to get access to confidential databases. The Murdoch-owned Sunday Times has an appalling history of involvement in illegal activity. And it’s because they’re Sunday papers, they’re trying to get scoops that the dailies haven’t got. At the far end of the spectrum, the quality dailies have the smallest involvement. And the Guardian is right at that other end.

And it seems to me that when Metro ran that—and the good thing about the Guardian is, it’s published this—Metro didn’t go and ask anybody any questions, or do any work, to get the story. The Guardian published a story saying, ”Look, there is an example, a single example, in the past where a Guardian journalist hacked a telephone.” So I would say, first of all, good for the Guardian for being open and transparent. Bad for Metro for digging that out and pretending they’d done any work on the story. And particularly bad for the Metro because look at the malice, look at the laziness, look at the complete refusal to go out and take on a big, powerful enemy. And look at their spiteful attempt to try and trip up the newspaper that’s been doing all the hard work. So I’ve got nothing but contempt for Metro.

If so much of Fleet Street was doing this, why is all the focus on News International?

It’s actually a fluke. News International made the mistake of getting caught doing something illegal against the one group of targets who the police would not ignore, and that was the royal family. They ran a stupid story about how Prince William had injured his knee. And the reality was that Prince William hadn’t injured his knee, but for a few hours he thought he had, and he left a message on somebody’s phone, saying, “I think I’ve injured my knee.” And so when he read the story, and his people read the story, there is only one way the News of the World could have got that. So that meant, because it’s the royal family, the police couldn’t ignore it, so they investigate, and then they arrest the private investigator and seize all of his material. Now, it so happens that he works full time and exclusively for the News of the World, and so that means all of the evidence which the police have got relates to the News of the World. And then the other thing is that as a background fact, if you take my basic thing that I was talking about, the sort of spectrum of activity, it’s mostly the tabloids, and it’s particularly the Sundays, so the News of the World is a Sunday tabloid and therefore it has been more involved than almost any other paper. I would think it probably has done more than any other. But it was a fluke that it was their investigator who ended up getting investigated.

When you broke the story that News of the World had hacked the voicemail of Milly Dowler [a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered], did you think it would be what it became?

I work from home, so I filed it up to the Guardian and I sent an email to the editor, saying, “I think this is the most powerful hacking story so far.” So I understood that it clearly had an emotional impact, but I did not even begin to foresee this chain reaction of outcomes. I would never have begun to foresee that within three days News International would announce the closure of the News of the World—which incidentally I think was an entirely unnecessary, brutal, and unforgivable decision by them—I wouldn’t have foreseen that it would have led to the complete cancellation of Murdoch’s attempt to take over BSkyB, or to the scale of resignations that also followed. There were some people who were clearly going to have to resign before the Milly Dowler story, but it went beyond that—Les Hinton, for example, in New York. There was no pressure on him to resign, but somehow there was this kind of contagion of panic.

Is there, when you see those things—the closure of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks resigning, Les Hinton resigning—is there a sense of accomplishment for you in that?

No. I mean, I don’t feel any kind of triumphalism. All I do feel is that when we first started publishing stories about this in July 2009, Rebekah Brooks orchestrated a sustained attack on the Guardian and me, she accused us of lying to the British people, and used Murdoch’s news outlets to convey that message to millions of people, and certainly I’m glad that we’ve restored our credibility and shown that what we were saying was true. But I think there’s a difference between being a reporter and a police officer. My job is to put the facts out there; resignations and arrests and trials are somebody else’s business, and just within that, one of the policies we worked out before we published any stories was that we’ve always withheld the names of ordinary reporters who’ve been involved in illegal activity, because I’m not a police officer, and I did not want to blame foot soldiers for what the generals did.

Have you ever thought about or been tempted to do any hacking of your own?

I come from a different sort of background. A quality daily newspaper like the Guardian, whatever the idiots at Metro may think, genuinely just doesn’t do this stuff. You could criticize the Guardian on a completely different ground, which is that it has a very soft culture. You don’t get shouted at at the Guardian, nobody bullies you at the paper, nobody tells you what to write. Now I love working in that atmosphere; I am free to research and write what I want. It’s the tabloids, with their intense commercial need to get scoops to bring in readers, that run a regime of fear, where reporters are bullied, shouted at. That’s where things go wrong.

What actually happened with me is that I set out to write this book, Flat Earth News, which is about falsehood and distortion in media coverage generally. So I was then going to meet journalists from other newspapers to get the story behind stories; “How come your newspaper published this story which was obviously false?” And the reporters were being extremely helpful, and along the way, they started talking to me about this stuff, and I think I knew, as a sort of one line statement, some newspapers did some interestingly unethical things, but I had no idea of the detail, no idea of the scale, because I worked for a newspaper where it just doesn’t happen. So I was genuinely amazed, so I put a chapter into that book about it.

Then when the book came out in January ’08, I was on BBC Radio talking about it, and they had a guy called Stuart Kuttner, then the managing editor of the News of the World—he was actually arrested just last week—and I said something in the interview about the dark arts, as they’re known in Fleet Street, and Kuttner came across the table, “Nick Davies lives on another planet. What’s he talking about? It was just one journalist at News of the World, who did it once, and he was fired and went to prison.” Well, that was an outrageous lie, and what it did was it provoked somebody to contact me and say, “I heard Kuttner saying that on the radio, and it’s completely untrue.” They started to fill me in on the phone hacking story at News of the World. So it was sort of a sequence of revelations, of stuff that I just didn’t know was going on.

What do you think of the attention that [CNN host] Piers Morgan is getting, and the controversy about him?

I think the journalists who worked at the Daily Mirror under Piers would say that there was a lot of illegal activity going on, and so the question is whether or not there’s evidence that Piers knew about it. And I think he’s certainly under pressure, because the issue has got such a profile, some of the journalists who were doing illegal things when he was editor are beginning to talk. But we mustn’t prejudge it; you have to build this thing out of evidence. If some celebrity comes forward and says, “Well, I’m sure I was hacked,” that isn’t evidence. You have to prove it to us. Similarly, there was a little bit going on in Britain last week where Daily Mirror journalists were talking off-the-record to television programs, and television programs were saying, “We’ve got a source who says…” Well, all right, but it’s a bit weak. I don’t think anybody should be sacked or imprisoned without decent evidence. So there’s every reason to ask questions of Piers, but we need to see evidence.