Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch by Nick Davies
Review by David Baines, Newcastle University,
Nick Davies says the single sentence which encapsulated what this book is about, came to him while he was waiting for a bus. ‘This is a book about power and truth.’ It is an account in forensic detail of his investigation into the now widely known hacking scandal presented in three parts: Crime and Concealment; The Power Game; Truth.
It lays bare how lies were gradually exposed through painstaking journalism, one small step at a time, and in the face of concerted opposition from the political, and most of the media, establishment.
But Davies’ critical narrative offers context to these events, and he is right: this is a book about power. The most vivid account of that power is in the description of the wedding of Charlie Brooks to Rebekah Wade, editor, at the time, of The Sun. But she is not the sun around whom the guests circle: the one with the real gravitational pull is Rupert Murdoch. The head of News Corp, says Davies, might be a highly political animal, but he wields his power not as an end in itself, the motivation of Big Brother in 1984, but as a means to an end: to help his company get bigger.
‘In practical terms this comes down to a repeated demand to be freed from regulation. He and his senior journalists all sing from the same song sheet on the virtues of deregulated free markets… theirs is the world’s loudest voice calling for the state to be cut back to make way for private enterprise. Repeatedly, Murdoch has had to find ways to… sideline the public interest in order to advance his own.’
The question that passage prompts, a question from virtually every page, is: ‘What is journalism for?’ It has particular resonance for journalism educators. Issues of applied ethics with which students grapple often address ‘the public interest’. In journalists’ codes of conduct, acting in the public interest can justify what would otherwise be unacceptable conduct. Davies is here exploring and exposing the conduct of individual journalists, and when journalism educators explore ethical concerns with their students, they usually do so with a regard to how those students should shape their own professional practice. But
for Davies this is a secondary level of concern. Hack Attack, despite its title, is primarily a work of organisational analysis, a systemic interrogation of a large section of one corporate news organisation, the corporate media industry, the political establishment and the police.
His quest began with a doubt over the ‘one rogue reporter’ defence of the News of the World. But he also exposes the myth of one rogue newspaper. The Information Commissioner’s reports What Price Privacy (Information Commissioner’s Office, 2006a) and What Price Privacy Now? (Information Commissioner’s Office, 2006b) exposed the unethical practices of most of Fleet Street, and ‘Fleet Street chose to report almost nothing of this to the outside world’.
‘In a tyranny,’ Davies says, ‘the ruling elite can abuse its power all day long. In an established democracy, abuse of power cannot afford to be visible. The secrets and lies are not
an optional extra, they are central to the strategy.’
It is important to explore with our students the conflicting demands of journalism as a business and journalism’s functions in the democratic process, its roles in society at large: to consider the question, ‘What is journalism for?’ If we are to prepare our students to work with integrity in the field of journalism it is clearly not enough simply to teach them the skills to do the job. They need to understand how the systems work and how that can influence content, professional practice, professional and organisational values.
Hack Attack is an account of a landmark achievement in investigative journalism by (probably) Britain’s finest investigative journalist. From the point of view of the journalism educator, it is an example to put before students of journalism at its best, in exposing far-reaching abuses of journalism – and of power. But it is also a useful pointer to curriculum design.
Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch by Nick Davies,
Chatto & Windus, 2014, Hardback: 430pp. £11.00