Even if you are familiar with the News of the World phone-hacking saga, you will be gobsmacked by this account. It is a tale of stupidity, incompetence, fear, intimidation, lying, downright wickedness and corruption in high places. It is constructed like a thriller, with cliff-hanging chapter endings and a final section entitled “Darker and darker.” Men and women fear for their lives and their families, remove batteries from their mobiles, keep their blinds down and curtains closed, check their homes for bugging devices, see sinister vehicles in rear-view mirrors, and vary their routes to work each day. Vivid characters hop on and off stage, one of them a former policeman running a private detective agency called Silent Shadow. There’s even a murder. The improbable hero, doggedly pursuing his quarry, is the portly Labour Member of Parliament Tom Watson — “the tub of lard,” Rupert Murdoch’s papers called him, in the charming way they have with people they don’t like. Rather confusingly, he’s also (with an Independent journalist) the
co-author, but referred to throughout in the third person.
The book opens with a quote from Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post journalists who unearthed Watergate, comparing phone-hacking to that celebrated scandal. The parallels are indeed close, right down to the allegation that News International eventually bugged Rebekah Brooks, its own chief executive, just as former US president Richard Nixon bugged his own White House office. In both scandals, dirty work was done by low-level operatives. Paper (or electronic) trails couldn’t establish conclusively that they acted on orders from above. But in phone hacking, as in the Watergate burglary, top people (we still don’t know how near the top the trail will lead) implicated themselves through a systematic cover-up. With a bit of stretch, you could argue that hacking may yet turn out to be bigger than Watergate. Nixon may have been leader of the world’s most powerful nation but he was, so to speak, just a rogue president. The products of Murdoch’s global media corporation, on the other hand, are consumed annually by a billion people, and the hacking cover-up appears to have encompassed not just one political leader but the entire British political establishment, to say nothing of the police, the legal services and much of the media.
Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain
By Tom Watson and Martin Hickman
What stands out from this book is the lengths to which News International went to bury the hacking scandal and how, before the revelations in July last year that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, the company nearly got away with it. Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal reporter, was jailed in January 2007, along with the private detective Glenn Mulcaire. The police had evidence that Mulcaire’s targets went well beyond the royal family and that, almost certainly, many reporters other than Goodman were involved. Yet no proper investigation followed, and no more arrests until 2011. The police deployed, on different occasions, a range of implausible excuses: they were too busy investigating terrorism; Mulcaire had actually hacked only “a handful” of the phone numbers he held; the law allowed prosecution only where a voice message was intercepted before the owner heard it.
Perhaps they were just frightened. When police raided the News of the World offices in the wake of Goodman’s arrest, they faced a hostile, uncooperative and (some thought) potentially violent response. In effect, they were sent packing, and didn’t dare return. As revelations grew, News International’s response was, first, to deny them, second, to put pressure on newspapers and members of parliaments to drop their investigations (pressure that was complemented by the advice of senior police officers), and third, to take further steps to cover its tracks.