Guardian’s Rusbridger and Davies: Media Personality 2011

The third annual Woolly Days media personality of the year (after Mark Scott in 2009 and Julian Assange in 2010) is shared between Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and Guardian journalist Nick Davies. Rusbridger and Davies win the 2011 award for their disciplined and determined expose of the insidious tactics of the News International empire in illegally hacking phones for dubious journalistic ends.

The pair’s actions caused the folding of the News of the World and the resignation and charging of several high profile current and former News International execs including David Cameron’s spin doctor Andy Coulson. It also hastened the end of the Murdoch dynasty as the public furore caused in the wake of the Guardian’s revelations put a cloud over James Murdoch’s ability to lead the company. The biggest economic impact was the loss of the money-spinning BSkyB takeover which looked inevitable as recently as a week before the scandal broke.Rusbridger told the remarkable story of the phone hacking in his 2011 Orwell lecture. In January 2007 News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three royal staff, an offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. News International chair Les Hinton told a 2007 House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport Goodwin acted alone and without their knowledge.

News continued its strenuous denials of a wider conspiracy until 2009 when Davies splashed his Gordon Taylor revelations. Davies revealed Murdoch had paid out over a £1m in legal cases that threatened to reveal the phone hacking. Professional Football Association boss Gordon Taylor was paid £700,000. Davies revealed the suppressed legal cases were linked to the Goodman case.

A News private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was also jailed in January 2007. Mulcaire admitted hacking the phones of five other targets, including Taylor (the others were Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes, celebrity PR Max Clifford, model Elle MacPherson and football agent Sky Andrew). In 2008 Taylor sued News on the basis that they must have known about it. News submitted documents to the High Court denying keeping any recording or notes of intercepted messages. Taylor’s lawyers demanded detailed police evidence which revealed Mulcaire had provided a recording of Taylor’s messages to a News of the World journalist who emailed them to a senior reporter. The evidence also found a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages. The News case immediately collapsed causing the payout.

When the Guardian revealed the story, News and its supporters in blue closed ranks. The News of the World furiously attacked the Guardian while in The Times the police assistant commissioner in charge of the original investigation downplayed the disclosures saying there were a handful of victims of hacking and only a few hundred targeted. According to Rusbridger, the police conducted the quickest review in recent history – a few hours. News International exec Rebekah Brooks (ultimately undone by the scandal) said the Guardian had “deliberately misled the British public”.

A week later Rusbridger and Davies appeared before the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport. It was there Davies produced the “For Neville” emails that destroyed News’s case against the Guardian. The emails were for Neville Thurlbeck, Chief Reporter of the News of the World, and they conclusively showed people other than Goodman were aware of the hacking. Yet police commissioner Paul Stephenson told Rusbridger that Davies was barking up the wrong tree. In November 2009 the Press Complaints Commission rejected the Guardian’s claims, but were forced to change their tune in July 2011 after the Milly Dowler affair came to light.

On 4 July, Davies and Amelia Hill revealed the News of the World illegally targeted missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002 using records stolen from BT’s confidential records. The affair seemed particularly horrific to the public because of the revelation NotW deleted messages from Dowler’s message bank giving her parents false hope she was alive. The paper made no effort to hide that fact even publishing details of a message in a 2002 article. The Met Police’s QC now says the messages were probably automatically deleted but the damage was already done. Murdoch was forced to personally apologise to Dowler’s parents and his empire started unravelling as damaging allegations followed in the Leveson Inquiry.

Nick Davies was honoured for his series of articles with a swag of awards. He was named journalist of the year at the Foreign Press Association Media Awards 2011, won the Frontline Club award for his investigation and also won the FPA print and web news award along with Hill for the Dowler story.

Rusbridger used the Orwell lecture to stake out a new future for a troubled industry. He said self regulation was a joke and the PCC had no powers. He said they needed a mediation power which would be cheaper to access than a libel trial and would be a vital input in any court action. Rusbridger also asked deep questions about what the “public interest” means: “It is not only crucial to the sometimes arcane subject of privacy,” he said. “It is crucial to every argument about the future of the press, the public good it delivers and why, in the most testing of economic times, it deserves to survive.” For raising these questions and for relentlessly following the evidence when it seemed they had little to go on, Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies were a breath of fresh air to a deeply troubled media industry, economically and ethically.


Guardian Media Group looking to close The Observer

(photo by Florian)  The world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, the London-based Observer, is on the verge of closure as its Guardian Media Group owners look to save costs. The Scott Trust foundation which owns the GMG is drawing up plans to turn the 218-year-old title into a mid-week news magazine. Foundation members opposed drafts of the proposal last month and executives have gone back to the drawing board to determine the best way forward.

The decision was forced on the GMG after an annual loss of $180m last week with its flagship newspapers The Guardian and The Observer losing $74m. The group immediately began work on a three year strategic plan to come up with radical measures to staunch the losses. But while the charter of the Scott Trust (“to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity”) means The Guardian will be protected, there is no protection for the Sunday broadsheet the Trust bought in 1993. GMG’s chief executive Carolyn McCall said the paper could withstand the losses this year (and last year) but it could not do so three years running.

Donald Trelford, Observer editor between 1975 and 1993, told the BBC’s Newsnight last night the problem is caused by a combination of factors. He blamed the large Saturday newspapers which take all weekend and beyond to read, competition from free content on the Internet, and the Scott Trust protection of The Guardian from the open market. Trelford said that without The Observer “we’d be left with the Sunday Times […] and the Sunday Torygraph [sic] and I can’t believe that would be a healthy thing for British democracy”.

Mark Hanson
of The Independent (with a similarly troubled Sunday edition) says The Observer is paying the price for bad strategic decisions by Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. In May Rusbridger announced a merged team would operate across three platforms (the two newspapers and the website that would keep the “distinct voice” of each platform separate. Hanson claims Rusbridger sunk $120m into bespoke printing presses that no other newspaper can use because of the papers’ unique Berliner format.

This is not the first time The Observer’s future has been threatened. GMG tried to shut the paper down five years ago. They commissioned consultants who suggested the Trust replace the newspaper with a magazine. The proposal was fought off by members of the trust and then-editor Roger Alton. Despite the decline of the British newspaper industry since 2004, the paper still has a healthy readership. The paper has a circulation of 420,000 (17 percent of the Sunday market) and a readership of 1.37 million.

If it does disappear it will be a sad moment in British history. W. S. Bourne founded the paper on 4 December 1791 with a commitment to the free communication of truth. Initially subsidised by the government in return for favourable reviews, it gradually found its own voice. Under David Astor in the 1940s it became a liberal, trust-owned publication, with no political affiliations. The paper became a pawn in Tiny Rowlands’ war with Mohammed Al Fayed in the 1980s before being taken over by the GMG after a House of Commons motion opposed its closure. It is difficult to believe today’s parliament will feel a similar sense of outrage.