Dial M for Murdoch

imageThe book Dial M For Murdoch by British politician Tom Watson and journalist Martin Hickman is a frightening read. It is frightening not only because it described a state of affairs where politicians, media and police colluded to hide criminal activity but because the crimes it describes have been almost completely forgotten and the criminals still act as if nothing has changed and they are still in charge.

As the authors say in the introduction, the book describes how a global news company exerted a poisonous and secretive influence on British public life and when exposed, it used its power to bully, intimidate and cover up with help from its allies at the highest levels of politics and the police. Yet the authors’ hope the scandal would force the perpetrators to clean up their act hasn’t eventuated. While the scandal ended with public inquiries, the humbling of Rupert Murdoch and the death of the News of the World (NotW), it hasn’t fundamentally changed the government or Murdoch’s behaviour nor has it chastened the rest of the tabloid pack in Britain who remain a mostly unaccountable right-wing rabble.

Tom Watson is a Labour Party MP who attracted the ire of Murdoch’s empire. His mistake was to plot against Murdoch favourite Tony Blair, an action that earned him the lasting enmity of Rupert’s powerful attack dog Rebekah Wade, who rose from a secretary to editor of the NotW in a decade. The Sun called him a “treacherous lump of lard” and a “mad dog trained to maul”. The NotW went further and raided his message bank as they did with many others.

It was the fierce level of competition Murdoch inspired that encouraged this behaviour, even pitting their own reporters against each other for the perfect tabloid scoop. The NotW had deep links into the police with Wade even admitting to a 2004 parliamentary inquiry they routinely bribed the force. But it was a successful model with the Murdoch tabloids making money and the NotW having a reputation as a muckraking award winning bastion of investigative journalism.

But its methods were vile. Some like chequebook journalism were well known, others like “blagging” confidential records or paying corrupt officials for private data were less well understood and there was no appetite to expose it by police forces anxious to have cordial relations with Fleet St. It took the involvement of the royal family to start the unravelling.

In 2005 Prince Charles’ staffers were alarmed when they saw very detailed gossip about his sons appear in NotW. They came to the conclusion the tabloid could only have got their information from phone hacking. They contacted Scotland Yard who began Operation Caryatid. The Royal revelations were appearing in NotW column Blackadder written by Royal editor Clive Goodman. Scotland Yard compared Goodman’s columns against the phone numbers they knew were being hacked and built a case against him. At the same time senior police officers were wining and dining with then NotW editor Andy Coulson.

Operation Caryatid made a breakthrough when O2 told them about a blagger wanting to change royal phone codes. He was private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who Goodman kept on a weekly retainer to hack voicemails on an industrial scale – not just the royals. Yet police made the decision to restrict the case to “less sensitive” witnesses. In 2006 Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested with no effort made to widen the inquiry to other journalists despite circumstantial evidence. Instead police gave Wade a full briefing on what they found because she was mentioned in Mulcaire’s files. Unsurprisingly Wade did not wish to make a complaint against her employers. They didn’t tell the many victims named in Mulcaire’s files and neither did the phone companies (except O2) for many years.

In 2007 Goodman was jailed for four months and Mulcaire got six for illegal invasion of privacy. NotW editor Coulson had to stand down in the scandal but the paper hid behind the “bad apple” defence. Goodman was sacked but was furious as he believed he was just a scapegoat and threatened to appeal publicly. Mulcaire admitted in court hacking football union leader Gordon Taylor and now Taylor was threatening to sue. His lawyers had gained police evidence including a Mulcaire email “for Neville” believed to be for NotW journalist Neville Thurlbeck.

Yet Murdoch had bigger fish to fry setting his sights on Dow Jones Wall St Journal and British pay TV and throwing his support behind the Tories under sympathetic new leader David Cameron – and his new press secretary Andy Coulson, formerly of NotW. Taylor was paid off for almost half a million pounds, a record, on condition of silence.

In 2008. Guardian journalist Nick Davies became aware of the scale of the illegality at News through a police contact. He scoured NotW for stories that might have used intercepts as a source.  In 2009 he broke his story saying Murdoch had paid a million pounds to settle legal cases like Taylor’s that threatened to reveal evidence of criminality. He had found the For Neville email and quoted a police source saying thousands of phones were hacked. Labour was outraged saying Cameron should sack Coulson but police refused to reopen the case. Murdoch himself denied it, saying if they had paid out Taylor he would have known about it. The Times counterattacked rebutting the Guardian allegations and calling Davies dysfunctional. News lawyers admitted to Watson at a parliamentary inquiry James Murdoch had approved the Taylor payout.

But at the end of 2008 the Press Complaints Commission exonerated NotW saying no new evidence had emerged. The Guardian’s stories had not lived up to their “dramatic billing” the PCC decided. Scotland Yard urged the paper to drop its hostile coverage as “over-egged”. But the Guardian persisted and discovered Mulcaire had accessed the inbox of 100 customers of Orange, O2 and Vodaphone. They were supported by Watson’s parliamentary culture committee which accused News of hindering their inquiries. NotW accused Watson of shamefully hijacking the committee.

After the May 2010 election Cameron became PM and Coulson his press secretary despite Coalition partner LibDem reservations. Just as he did in the Blair years, Murdoch had a private audience in Downing St with a plan to take sole ownership of BSkyB. But the storm clouds were gathering. People who appeared in Mulcaire’s files like Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan began legal action though could not prove they were hacked. The Guardian shared their files with the New York Times which quoted a disgruntled News journalist saying Coulson knew of the hacking which spread well beyond one reporter. News claimed the Times was carrying out a vendetta because of its rivalry with their Wall St Journal. Coulson “emphatically” denied wrongdoing.

Watson raised the matter in parliament, especially on the news Scotland Yard had deliberately ended the investigation despite extensive evidence. Watson was warned by News they would target him if he didn’t back off but with media refusing to publish his allegations he put them on the blog Labour Uncut. When LibDem minister Vince Cable threatened to refer the News takeover of BSkyB he was undone by a sting from undercover Telegraph reporters and resigned. New Tory minister Jeremy Hunt was more compliant to Murdoch.

Four years after the arrest of Goodman, Met Police finally interviewed his boss Andy Coulson. They announced there was no new evidence but didnt reveal the key evidence they had all along. Miller took her case to court revealing News editor Ian Edmondson knew of the hacking and he was immediately suspended by his employers. Coulson resigned in January 2011 despite claiming he had been punished twice. The Met launched a new inquiry into hacking. A senior Met officer admitted to Watson they never looked at all the Mulcaire files. With evidence growing, the BBC finally started to take an interest. Yet Hunt continued to back the BSkyB bid despite growing reservations.

News set aside 20m quid for payouts to settle with a growing list of victims as they tried to pick off civil claimants before their day in court. The pressure was building on what Rebekah Brooks knew, despite her closeness to Murdoch. But the tables turned on July 4, 2011 when Davies revealed a new hacking victim: murdered school girl Milly Dowler. Davies overreached by claiming NotW deleted messages from her phone to make room for others, giving false hope to her parents she was alive. But the impact was devastating and News had to admit it was a “great concern”. Social media went berserk and even the PCC admitted it was misled. Advertisers threatened to leave NotW and News’ share price plummeted.

With news emerging of Murdoch papers’ corruption of police, the noose tightened. On July 7 NotW called an all staff meeting which read out a James Murdoch email admitting they had misled parliament. At the end was a bombshell: the paper would close down after that weekend. Coulson was arrested and it was open season on Murdoch in parliament. With BSkyB shares in freefall Murdoch finally got the message and withdrew his offer. A week later Wade resigned and Rupert and James were summoned to give evidence to the Culture Committee.

Murdoch’s memorable phrase was about his most humble day of his life but his evidence was accurately satirised by Private Eye as “we are sorry we have been caught”.  His feeble defence was they had only recently found out the problem and would only admit they had been “lax”. By then Wade had been arrested and the Met Police chief was forced to resign. Wade also fronted parliament but claimed she couldn’t remember authorising payments for hacking. Cameron claimed not to have discussed BSkyB with Murdoch, but Labour couldn’t press too hard. After all, they had been in bed with the Dirty Digger too in the Blair years.

At the end of that summer News announced profits of $982m mainly from television and Murdoch was awarded a $12.5m bonus. As they hived off their troublesome newspaper business, it was back to business as usual, the Murdochs holding on to power against rebellious shareholders thanks to their powerful voting shares. While the PM distanced himself, his education minister Michael Gove still had stars in his eyes. “Murdoch is a force of nature and a phenomenon,” he said. “I think he is a great man.” The Sun on Sunday would soon fill the NotW gap and while the Leveson Inquiry brought many embarrassing revelations, they were soon forgotten in the relentless 24 hour news cycle. It did not take long for Murdoch papers to resume their role as kingmakers. As Watson ruefully concluded, the empire stood shaken and ostensibly apologetic for a while,  but it is still there and Rupert Murdoch is still in charge. British – and Australian – media remain in his thrall.

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