Harry Browne spoke to Nick Davies – an award winning investigative journalist central to breaking the News Of The World phone scandal – about which he’s just published hack attack and the extraordinary vignette of Bono and Murdoch playing bridge together.
HB: In Flat Earth News you popularised the term ‘churnalism’ to describe the cheap cut-and-paste on behalf of PR and powerful interests that increasingly fills newspapers. Hack Attack is about nasty, underhanded intrusions into utterly private affairs. Is it time we stopped trying to cling on to a loftier conception of the craft and its principles, admitting that ‘real journalism’ is mostly variations on these kinds of crap, and finding another word for what a small minority of practitioners, like yourself, get to do?
ND: No. We should hold on to the word and hold on to what it means – an honest attempt to tell people what is going on in the world. We shouldn’t give the bad guys the word any more than we should give them the power to undermine truth-telling or harness journalism to crime.
HB: A few years ago many of us were optimistic about new models of journalistic practice emerging from organisations such as Wikileaks. Has your own negative experience of working with Julian Assange affected how you view existing and potential alternatives to the established corporate and state media?
ND: These are two different things. First, in relation to Julian, he is brilliant and brave but he is also sometimes horribly destructive and misguided, so he has alienated many allies and lost a great deal of the power which he had. But the pros and cons of his character are not inherently related to the second thing, which is the idea of a website acting as a safe conduit for whistleblowers. That’s an idea which never did strike me as offering a new model of journalistic practice. At base, in its most important and powerful form, journalism is about building relationships with human sources. So, ok, some whistleblowers may prefer to lob their information anonymously into the public domain, but a lot of them are going to want to find a reporter, form a bond and collaborate. Ed Snowden deliberately sought out Glenn Greenwald as a conduit through which to release his material. That has worked well and I still think that is the basic model.
HB: A hundred years ago Lord Northcliffe controlled lots more of the British media than Rupert Murdoch does today. What, if anything, makes Murdoch different?
ND: Northcliffe was national. Murdoch is global. Like Northcliffe, Murdoch can expect political favours from governments who fear the ability of his newspapers to destabilise them (and to expose the sex lives of individual ministers.) But unlike Northcliffe, he has a second super weapon at his disposal, an economic one: the globalised economy allows him to extract his capital from any jurisdiction whose government frustrates him, creating unemployment and economic havoc at will. There are key moments in Hack Attack where you can see the Murdoch network wagging that second threat under the noses of the Cameron government as part of their effort to muscle them into allowing them to buy BSkyB.
HB: We know politicians enable Murdoch businesses, but do you think his power has wider political consequences, that those in power really do things they wouldn’t do otherwise – from going to war to cutting social spending – because of his power?
ND: Sure. I’ve given a lot of detailed examples in the book of UK governments over the last 35 years feeding favours to Murdoch. This can involve seriously big decisions such as whether or not to join the euro and whether or not to invade Iraq – both occasions on which you can trace Murdoch’s influence. It can also involve smaller favours – exclusive stories for his journalists and an almost laughable effort by Gordon Brown who tried to curry favour with Rebekah Wade, when she first started going out with Charlie Brooks, by ordering officials to investigate the possibility of cancelling the horserace levy, which taxes the industry in which Charlie was working as a trainer. Almost laughable – but not really very funny at all.
HB: Is there any clear example of a public figure who was savaged in the Murdoch press on behalf of a Murdoch commercial interest?
ND: I’ve mentioned in Hack Attack the cases of a senior figure in British sport who is said to have complied with Murdoch’s plans for TV rights when he was informed that the Sun was ready to tell its readers he had had sexual relationships with young men; and about a middle-ranking Labour politician who is said to have spoken up for Murdoch’s UK newspapers after journalists obtained a video of him having sex with a prostitute while her husband watched.
HB: Do you think there was reasonable coverage of the News of the World scandals in Murdoch’s ‘quality’ papers: the Wall Street Journal, the Times, the Sunday Times?
ND: The Murdoch papers held back from covering the hacking scandal, intervening only occasionally to try to rubbish it. However, other Fleet Street papers performed just as badly, whether because they didn’t want to embarrass David Cameron who had hired Andy Coulson, the editor who had overseen the hacking at the News of the World; or because their own journalists had been up to similarly dodgy behaviour.
HB: Would you work for a Murdoch publication?
ND: I wouldn’t want to work for Murdoch. Oddly, he hasn’t asked me to.
HB: Hack Attack includes, in its portrait of the Rebekah Brooks-Murdoch set, an account of an occasion when the U2 singer partnered Rupert Murdoch at bridge. I wonder what you make of the corporate-media-philanthropic nexus that this moment typifies, and if it’s worse that Bono is pals with Murdoch or that he plays bridge?
ND: At first, it just looks comic, doesn’t it – the rock star groover sitting down to play parlour games with the prune-wrinkled old megalomaniac. In fact, it matters. At the very least, Murdoch has to learn to live with himself and it must salve his conscience – and encourage his endless quest for money and power – if the rock star accepts and endorses him like this. At most, it spreads the endorsement wider and gives innocent bystanders the idea that if Bono is prepared to bless him, maybe they should too.
Photo by Andrew Hasson