The Restoration of Rebekah: How Rupert Murdoch Hacked the UK
This is a version of the speech I'm giving this afternoon to an assembly of investigative journalists from Central Europe and Russia. My work looks paltry in comparison to the crusading work of most my fellow attendees. Among them is Andrey Lipsky, deputy Editor in Chief of Novaya Gazeta, one of the last publications in Russia still critical of Vladimir Putin, whose famous reporter Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006. I'm also honoured to share a platform with Dmytro Gnap who covered the Maidan revolution in Kiev against all the odds - including baton charges and sniper bullets - for Slidtvo.info and Hromadske TV. Compared to either of these journalists I'm a celebrity hack.
I come with some bad news. I come with some bad news about the state of the news in Britain today. It is now four years since Nick Davies broke the phone hacking scandal in the Guardian, and Rupert Murdoch closed one of the oldest newspapers in the world, the News of the World.
From that came a political crisis: the resignations of the country’s most senior police officers, News Corp’s withdrawal of a billion dollar bid for BSkyB, a public inquiry – the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and ethics of the press - and a dozen or so criminal trials. And what has been the result? I come mainly with bad news and a little ray of hope.
Britain is supposedly the birthplace of the free press. From the coffee shops and bookshops around the legal centre of London – the Inns of Court – arose the newspaper industry of Fleet Street. For 150 years our national newspapers claimed to be at the forefront of our democracy.
The fourth estate boldly declares its role is to expose corruption in politics and make power accountable. But the truth is – in the information age – media is a power in its own right. And rather than hold politicians to account, more often our newspapers held them hostage.
The phone hacking scandal was a classic proof of that. Carl Bernstein compared it to the Watergate Scandal.
In fact Bernstein said it was even bigger than the scandal that engulfed the second presidency of Richard Nixon and forced his resignation. Like the break in at the democratic headquarters of the Watergate Building in 1972, the phone hacking by News of the World was just the trigger. The real crisis was created by the cover-up. The attempt to suppress one small crime revealed a much larger criminal structure.
As I shall explain, the phone hacking of thousands of politicians, celebrities and ordinary members of the public from 2000-06 is only the tip of a much larger, nastier ice berg.
But even though phone hacking was known to hundreds in Fleet Street, and took place at the News of the World on an industrial scale with the collusion of senior editors and executives, it still took Nick Davies five years to expose the truth.
For five years Davies and his newspaper the Guardian, were subject to threats not only of reputational catastrophe but also surveillance and intrusion. The lawyers and politicians who tried to expose it were burgled, followed by private detectives, and had their reputations trashed in the papers. The organisation supposed to uphold press standards, the Press Complaints Commission, criticised the Guardian for exposing the wider phone hacking. Eventually the paper had to go overseas – to the New York Times – for help in covering the story, because very few in Fleet Street supported their campaign to reveal the truth.
This all revealed that the British press is not interested in free speech when it comes to revealing its own interests. Our 300 year tradition of freedom of expression turned out to be a one way street. We can interrogate, investigate and expose what every other industry or section of society does. But when it comes to the truth of illegal newsgathering, secrecy trumps disclosure. On a crucial matter of public interest they censored themselves. And how can the press hold power to account when it can’t even account for its own activities?
My own experience of covering the aftermath of Nick Davies’s work – especially by live tweeting the phone hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others – proved to me that many sections of the so called free press attempt to chill free speech.
I have had so many legal threats from British journalists and columnists, merely for reporting the objective truth, that I have lost count. I’ve had my personal finances investigated with an attempt to smear me in the tabloid press. More than once a journalist has threatened to report me to the police merely for transcribing the facts. There was a strangely timed break in at my flat the weekend I first covered the Daniel Morgan Murder (more on that later). Why is that?
For the last four years covering this story, I have yet to find another newspaper market quite as cut throat and tribal as the British newspapers. I’ve worked with a journalist who covered the war in Syria and the Russian invasion of Ukraine who told me he’s more afraid of tabloid journalists and private detectives than Putin trolls and Assad apologists. Where does this fear come from?
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
I said earlier that the hacking of voice mail messages by senior executives at the News of the World was just the tip of a darker iceberg. Let me explain briefly why this is not hyperbole or exaggeration.
Phone hacking, which really only took off around the year 2000, arose out of what the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called a ‘criminal media nexus’ – a unique combination of corrupt police officers, ruthless private detectives, and a newspaper industry happy to sponsor illegal newsgathering in its pursuit of private information on celebrities and politicians.
The dark arts which dominated much of the press for twenty years involved much serious crimes than voice mail interception. This group of private detectives working for the press used email hacking, burglary, bribes and blackmail to obtain any kind of private detail.
Lord preserve you if you became a target of the newspapers in this era.
If for some reason the press wanted to destroy you, they could mount 24 hour surveillance on your movements. They could use your phone to track your relationships and triangulate your whereabouts. Within a few hours they would have your bank details, medical history, criminal records, even privileged communications with lawyers. They could bug your house and car. They could film you secretly with hidden video cameras or snap you with long lenses. They could set up you for a crime and report you to the police – the same police who had tipped them off in the first place. And even if you were an undercover cop, or a highly sensitive police informant, or on witness protection, they could always find someone to bribe or something to hack to find out who you were, where you were.
This unique form of cheque book journalism, combined with an absolute lack of scruples about invading other people’s privacy, made the British press one of the most feared instruments of power in the country. Sometimes this awesome power would be turned to good use – against senior criminals or corrupt politicians. But more often than not it would be used to monster perceived enemies or social targets. And this technology of character assassination was more often than not used as a tool of political and industrial power. Privacy intrusion, for private ends.
THE ORIGIN OF THE DARK ARTS
It’s no coincidence that toxin of the dark arts really entered the bloodstream of the British press around 1987, a few miles from where Rupert Murdoch had recently moved his headquarters of News International. It was there, during the yearlong Wapping dispute with the print unions, that the close links between a news organisation and the police protecting them from the picket lines, were forged. It was there that Rupert Murdoch made the millions to expand to America. And just over the river, a young private detective called Daniel Morgan, was allegedly approaching the News of the World with a story of massive police corruption, when he was brutally killed with an axe in the back of his head.
From that originating act of violence – and the fact the murders still haven’t been brought to justice – that group of private detectives and corrupt police officers began to act with impunity. They began to be the favoured suppliers of illegal information to News of the World, and soon after that to the rest of Fleet St. Many senior journalist were trained in the dark arts for twenty years by this same small group.
So powerful was this ‘criminal media nexus’ that – by the time of the fourth and fifth inquiry into Daniel’s Murder in 2003 and 2005 - the News of the World was mounting surveillance on the family of the senior detective leading the hunt for his killers, hacking his phone and trying to undermine his reputation.
The Daniel Morgan murder is the most investigated crime in British legal history, and the biggest stain (according to senior officers) on the reputation of the Metropolitan police. Daniel’s brother, Alastair Morgan, has spent 28 years trying to get some justice. But there is so much police and press corruption involved it can never come to trial again. The only hope is a public inquiry – the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel – which should report next year.
By then, we should see how deep the dark arts go – way beyond phone hacking – to the ultimate crime of murder.
What a state of affairs. How did we end up in this position with our papers major sources of crime, rather that scourges of crime?
There is one simple explanation for all this – Monopoly.
Somebody once said in 1981: "A newspaper can create great controversies, it can stir up argument within the community, discussion, it can throw light on injustices – just as it can do the opposite: it can hide things and be a great power for evil.”
Who said that in 1981?
A certain Rupert Murdoch who had then, controversially, gained a dominant role in the UK press by adding the Times and Sunday Times to his existing titles – the best-selling The Sun and the world’s most read English language Sunday The News of the World
In a secret deal with Margaret Thatcher, Murdoch had managed to corner a dominant monopolistic position in the world’s most competitive newspaper market. This provided him with hundreds of millions of pounds in profits which he then leveraged to buy the basis of the Fox Network in the US.
But note the difference here. Murdoch had to become a US citizen – fast tracked by Ronald Reagan in 1985 – to own the Fox Network. He would also have to sell a newspaper holding, like the New York Post, if he wanted a TV station in the same city.
Yes, America, home of the First Amendment and land of the free markets has much tougher foreign ownership and trust busting laws than the UK.
Murdoch could never achieve the dominance in the US he could in the UK because of their understanding of the free market and anti-monopoly legislation.
And how much dominance does Rupert Murdoch have?
As well as the most powerful newspaper group, he also has a controlling interest in Britain’s dominance satellite channel, SKY, with revenues in excess of BBC TV.
There’s one salient proof of the power of Rupert Murdoch, apart from his constant meetings with politicians over private dinners. That proof is Rebekah Brooks.
The newly reinstalled CEO of News International, now rebranded News UK, was close personal friends with the last three British Prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. She was close personal friends despite the fact these successive prime ministers all hated each other.
Rebekah Brooks is a charming and likeable person in the flesh. But no matter how likeable she is, the real reason for her power was politicians felt they had to court her to win the approval of the biggest media baron in town to win elections. No other newspaper CEO had such access and such influence.
So why are 21st Century media moguls – from Murdoch to Berlusconi (and Berlusconi was at least a citizen of the country he dominated) – any different to 20th Century newspaper proprietors like William Randolf Hearst, the model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane?
INFORMATION AGE MONOPOLIES
I would say the crucial difference now is that we live in the information age. Information is not only power. Information is big multi-billion dollar business.
Information, from the mass surveillance of NSA and GCHQ to the privileged information gained by bribing public officials or hacking phones, is both a means and an end: it is a commodity and also ammunition. Publication can destroy careers. Withholding publication can create leverage.
You can see this readily in the careers of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. They parlayed their newspapers power – the power to monster and expose politicians – into favourable legislation and access. Rupert Murdoch’s career has been built in bamboozling, charming, and intimidating regulators over keys issues such as buying the Times, establishing Sky broadcasting, avoiding ownership restrictions, changing the Fairness doctrine, etc. etc
Just as many global companies do these days with their tax affairs, media barons use international arbitrage to avoid regulation.
I would say, by spending somewhere around $100m on the defence of Rebekah Brooks and others, Murdoch also outgunned the British judiciary and police during the phone hacking trial. It was the most expensive trial in British history. Even when you factor in the cost of the police operations, most that money was spent by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in an unprecedented corporate criminal defence.
Likewise, though it had to drop the BSkyB bid in 2011 because of the phone hacking scandal, James Murdoch has recently announced he will try to get complete ownership of Sky through the European route. With droves of expensive lawyers and lobbyists on his side, its likely this second attempt to circumvent monopoly and plurality laws will win.
Finally, it looks like, through strong support of the Conservative Party during the recent election, Murdoch and the other press barons have managed to put on hold the Leveson legislation, passed and agreed by all the major political parties at the last election.
They’ve gamed the system so well before – what’s to stop them doing it again?
So to an extent you can say that, with various brilliant media, lobbying and commercial moves, Rupert Murdoch hacked British society.
But why does this matter in Warsaw? Why would you care about this in Poland? And why are the abuses of old dead tree newspapers relevant to the looming digital age of online journalism.
This is there is one bit of good news. Thanks to the rise of social media and internet, citizens no longer rely on the popular press for their stories and opinions.
True, the tabloid press is still powerful. They were more partisan than ever in the recent election, with three quarters of all the national newspapers coming out in favour of the Conservatives or the coalition.
But they are a declining force. Murdoch’s best selling national tabloid, the Sun, has lost half its readership in the last ten years. It has a very poor online presence.
All newspapers are facing an advertising crisis, with revenues both from print and digital are dropping 30% this summer alone. Advertising provides most their income. Yet they can’t compete with the likes of Google or Facebook. They are in crisis, and part of the vehemence of the press could be construed as they desperate lashing out of a dying dinosaur.
But what are they being replaced by? I love and enjoy social media as a peer to peer exercise. Twitter and Google allow issues can be debated, information analysed and checked, and powerful figures can be held to account (Rupert Murdoch actually answered one of my tweets earlier this year).
But the truth is that the digital age is building monopolies which will make the newspaper and TV monopolies of Murdoch or Berlusconi look puny by comparison.
If the phone hacking scandal teaches us anything it’s that monopoly power soon leads to abuse. It may be unintentional at first. The vested interests may not think they’re doing anything corrupt. But once people have power, they are very unwilling to give it up without a fight.
Monopolies are the ‘special problem’ of markets first identified by the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith.
But globalised monopolistic companies not only distort the market, they lean on governments, escape regulation and avoid or evade tax.
When those global companies are media companies, it’s as if the immune system designed to protect the body politic has been infected. Media monopolies destroy the one thing that could be used to expose them – whistleblowing, truth telling, disclosure – often under the pretence of defending free speech.
This is why the phone hacking scandal is not just a scandal about Britain, or Rupert Murdoch, or newspapers – but a bigger warning for all of us wherever we live as we surrender our privacy and information to a small handful of global internet giants.