For a moment it looked as though Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire might be on the brink of collapse. The political pillars of the establishment looked shaky. In the summer of 2011 there was uproar over revelations that the Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World had hacked the voicemail messages of Milly Dowler, a 13 year old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered in 2002.
Nick Davies, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, broke the Dowler story. His valuable new book, Hack Attack, is, he writes, “about the abuse of power and the secrets and lies that protect it”. A chapter on Murdoch empire key player Rebekah Brooks’s June 2009 wedding paints a vivid picture of Britain’s political and media aristocracy.
Davies writes about Oxfordshire 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”. The circle of toxic filth between Murdoch and Tory and Labour politicians worked.
And David Cameron went all in, not only hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, but also befriending Brooks and supporting Murdoch’s quest to raise his stake in BSkyB. Murdoch used his newspapers as a blackmail tool and, because of their perceived influence over voters, as leverage to get the deregulation that helped him make a profit.
The hacking of phones was known about. The blagging of identities was not just standard practice, but actively encouraged. It guaranteed a steady income stream for police officers. Former cops and spooks spied with impunity. But when News of the World’s Glen Mulcaire tapped the phones of the royals he turned one bit of the state against them by accident.
As the hacking scandal developed, different parts of the establishment turned on each other — but only a little. The police went for the journalists who had been bribing them. The politicians went for the police who had been cosy with the journalists who were blackmailing them.
Each blamed each other and each attack widened the crisis yet further. It is why “plebgate” happened — the false accusation levelled against a senior Tory politician who they said called a policeman a “pleb”. It is why Cameron and Ed Miliband could find themselves both attacking and courting the praise of the Murdoch empire.
As is frequently the case in books by reporters, everything the editors leave out of his coverage gets put back in. But nonetheless, Davies rightly notes, “Power enjoys secrecy, because it increases its scope.”
Davies sees hacking as the result of a degeneration resulting from the triumph of neoliberalism — “Everything is for sale. Nobody is exempt.”
He is the hero of his own telling of the story. A lone gunslinger takes on a dishonest town and in the end the bad guys flee. The reality is both more complicated and a bit less satisfying. Davies writes of discovering hacking victims and encouraging them to sue, introducing them to lawyers, and giving them and others “ammunition”.
That Max Moseley’s money helped — and the various famous people promised to fight but then settled for the Murdoch shilling — suggests it wasn’t the best strategy. Despite the book’s subtitle, the truth never catches up with Murdoch.
Coulson went to jail but Brooks didn’t. The relationships at the top were shaken but remain. The long diversion that was the Leveson inquiry brought little clarity and little light — and it wasn’t even investigating the interesting bits of the scandal. Davies laments that “the elite simply took back their power, as if we had never challenged it”.
The pillars of the establishment protect and support each other, and they are able to regroup. And unfortunately a scandal alone is not enough to break that. What the scandal did, and will continue to do, is expose the unofficial networks that dominate society. That can only encourage a weakening of the system’s ability to rule. Davies’s book is a useful part of that.