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2011-07-21

Murdoch Empire "Pummeled" by Phone-Hacking Scandal Exposed by Guardian Journalist Nick Davies

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To talk more about the phone-hacking scandal and what it reveals about the Rupert Murdoch media empire, we speak with the British journalist who has been most responsible for exposing the widening story. Nick Davies has been covering the phone-hacking case at The Guardian newspaper with 75 stories over the past three years. He has been described as Britain’s one-man Woodward and Bernstein, a comparison to the legendary Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. Just over two weeks ago, Davies revealed the Murdoch-owned News of the World had illegally hacked into the phone of the missing schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, and her family in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance. "The Milly Dowler story was fantastically powerful… But I never foresaw this extraordinary chain reaction of emotion, which just pummeled the entire Murdoch camp," Davies says. "Within three days, it reached a point where nobody could be seen to be Murdoch’s ally anymore. For years, the opposite has been the case, that nobody could been seen to be Murdoch’s enemy." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, now joining us from the newsroom of The Guardian, is the reporter who has broken the media Murdoch—the Murdoch media scandal wide open. He is Nick Davies, award-winning investigative journalist at The Guardian in London.

Nick Davies, welcome to Democracy Now! Well, did you ever think that the—though you’ve been covering this for quite some time, that your report on the hacking of the murder victim Milly Dowler’s voicemail by the News of the World would shake the Murdoch empire to the extent that it has?

NICK DAVIES: No. So, I’ve been working on this thing for three years, very slowly parceling out the truth. I mean, I think I’ve done 75 stories on it. But the Milly Dowler story was fantastically powerful. I mean, I knew when I filed it that it was the most powerful story we had done so far. But I never foresaw this extraordinary chain reaction of emotion, which just pummeled the entire Murdoch camp. And really very rapidly, within three days, it reached a point where nobody could be seen to be Murdoch’s ally anymore. And that’s a really, really extraordinary thing in this country, because for years the opposite has been the case, that nobody could be seen to be Murdoch’s enemy. It’s kind of like having a bully in the school playground. And once the bully has beaten up a few people, everybody else in the playground recognizes that the bully is there. The bully doesn’t even have to do anything particularly serious. All the other kids tiptoe around. And that means governments and police forces and other newspapers have all been tiptoeing around Murdoch, frightened to say anything against him. And this one story about this 13-year-old girl, at the end of this long sequence of stories, just broke through and changed the whole dynamic.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Nick Davies, many of us here in the United States who watched the hearings this week were really surprised at the extent to which the members of Parliament really were dogged in their questioning and fairly confrontational in their questioning. Could you explain to us the degree of change that’s occurred among these MPs versus how they treated the Murdoch empire in the past?

NICK DAVIES: OK, you look at it this way. For the last two or three years, while we’ve been trying to get this story out, there’s been a maximum of four members of Parliament who were willing to stand up and talk about it. That’s out of a total of about 630.

Take as an example, there’s a guy called Chris Bryant. He’s been very good on this. Back in March 2003, he was a member of one of those parliamentary select committees. And he had in front of him, as witnesses, Rebekah Brooks, the then-editor of The Sun, previously editor of the News of the World, and her close friend and fellow editor, Andy Couslon, who’s the guy who goes to work for David Cameron. Way back there in March 2003, Chris Bryant asked a brave question. He said to Rebekah, "Have you ever paid the police for information?" And she, not considering the impact of her reply, said, "Yes, we have paid the police in the past." Now this was dynamite. You’re not supposed to admit to paying bribes to police officers. OK, that was March.

In December 2003, the Murdoch press exposed Chris Bryant. They accused him of what is in their ghastly moral framework a crime, which was that he was gay. And they published a photograph of him wearing a skimpy pair of underpants. They did that to humiliate that man, that politician, that elected politician, to punish him for daring to ask a difficult question and provoking a difficult answer. And that is a microcosm of why most of the rest of the 630 elected MPs stayed quiet and why the police go quiet and the news organizations go quiet. The Murdoch organization deals in power. And part of that power is about frightening people.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Davies, on Monday, on the eve of the Murdochs testifying, Sean Hoare, a former reporter with News of the World, who helped blow the whistle on the Murdoch-owned paper, was found dead in his home. Hoare had been the source a New York Times story tying the phone hacking to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who would later become the chief spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron—Coulson arrested as the scandal broke open. Hoare discussed his allegations against Andy Coulson in an interview last September.

SEAN HOARE: I have stood by Andy and been requested to tap phones, OK? Or hack into them and so on. He was well aware that the practice exists. To deny it is a lie, is simply a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sean Hoare, found dead in his home. The police immediately said it was not suspicious. Nick Davies, you knew Sean Hoare. Can you talk about what happened? Do you believe it was suspicious? And what is his significance?

NICK DAVIES: Well, first of all, there has always been a submerged network of former News of the World journalists who have assisted me and other people at The Guardian and the guys at the New York Times. Where Sean distinguished himself was that he was the first to come out on the record. And in doing that, he showed real bravery. And he did this in the New York Times, not The Guardian. Real bravery because of the intimidation which the Murdoch organization uses. And specifically if you’re a journalist and you come out and speak out against this organization, you’re losing any prospect of employment in the biggest media organization in the country. Sean did it. OK.

Now, I got to know him reasonably well, and he was a really, really—he was a good guy, had wonderful stories to tell. He dies this week. I’m afraid that unless somebody comes up with some evidence to contradict me, the sad fact is that Sean, who was many years younger than me, died because his body was ruined by alcohol and cocaine and ketamine. And in the background, the reason why he consumed quite so much alcohol and cocaine and ketamine and all the rest of it is because there was a long period of time when Murdoch’s newspapers paid him to do that. So, the way he put it to me was, "I was paid to go out and do drugs with rockstars." And he was a show business correspondent, so he went out with a lot of very famous rockstars and ingested massive quantities of alcohol and drugs. And Sean was a great guy. He had enormous bounce to him. So he made no bones about it. He had, you know, enormous fun doing it. He enjoyed doing it. But looking back, he could see that it had ruined his body. He had become very, very ill. His liver was in a terrible state. He said to me, "My liver is so bad, the doctors tell me I must be dead already." So, a kind of black joke. And so, I am afraid that his body caught up with him, and he died. And it’s very tempting for outsiders to say, "Well, that can’t be a fluke. That can’t be a coincidence." But unless somebody comes up with something I haven’t heard of, it was just a coincidence.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of—

NICK DAVIES: And if you were going to kill him, you would have killed him a year ago, before he started talking.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of what he was saying, pointing the finger at Andy Coulson?

NICK DAVIES: Yes, when he went on the record with the New York Times, it was very important. He was the first journalist to come on the record and say, "Andy Coulson definitely knew about this, firsthand. I promise you that that’s the case." And he kept on saying it, like the interview with you. He was really good. Because it was easy then for the Conservative Party, which was employing Andy Coulson, to deploy their members of Parliament to go out and smear Sean. They said, "Oh, well, he took drugs. You can’t believe him." Your spot—there’s absolutely no logic in that; that’s just a smear. So they gave him a good, old smearing.

And then the police, Scotland Yard, who were still in the phase when they were absolutely not interested in seeing the truth, they went around and interviewed him. But as soon as they come into the room, instead of saying, "OK, you’re an important witness," they said, "You’re a suspect. And anything you say could be used against you." So Sean used foul language and invited them to go. But he was good. He stood by his guns. I really liked him.

You know, it’s easy to look at an organization like the News of the World and see its ruthless invasion of privacy, its lust for destroying people’s lives in order to make money, and assume that everybody within it is as bad as the organization. But in fact there were lots of individuals in there who worked there, smelled the smell, and walked out and left it. And there’s a lot of good people who have helped us along the way.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Guardian reporter Nick Davies, who broke this Murdoch media scandal wide open. By the way, that interview of Sean Hoare was done by the BBC. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Nick Davies, I’d like to ask you about two other things that were kind of overshadowed in the hearings with the Murdochs and with Rebekah Brooks. One was the testimony of Sir Paul Stephenson, the now-resigned head of Scotland Yard, and the other was a press statement that was put out by the law firm that the Murdochs—that had supposedly—had hired and which held many of the documents that are now raising many major questions. First of all, about Sir Paul Stephenson, one of the shocking things in his testimony was that 10 out of the 45 employees of the press office of Scotland Yard were former employees of News of the World. Could you talk about this incestuous relationship between Scotland Yard and the News Corporation properties in England?

NICK DAVIES: OK, so if you see this in context, the reality of life in this country for some decades has been: you can’t run a government and you can’t run a police force unless you are on close, friendly terms with the Murdoch organization. So, there are all sorts of connections between the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard—that’s biggest police force in the country—and News International, which owns Murdoch’s newspapers in this country. And so, the fact that ex-journalists were being employed by their press office is part of that picture. But there’s a whole set of connections.

And to me, what’s so revealing about this story is what—the sequence is this, you see? You have News of the World journalists going out there breaking the law, routinely, and they’re allowed to get away with it. But then they make a terrible mistake: they hack into the voicemail of the one group of people who are more prestigious or powerful than the Murdochs. That’s the royal family. They get caught hacking Prince William’s phone. So, finally, the police have to come in and do something, like their job. But at that point, when the police have the option of gathering evidence to show how much crime was being committed by Murdoch’s people, they chose not to. They did a little job on the royal family as victims. They sent the royal correspondent of the paper to prison. They sent the investigator to prison. And the rest, of all the evidence that they collected during that inquiry, they didn’t properly investigate, because they didn’t want to get into a fight with that powerful organization. And then, you see the seriousness of that, that they were exempted from normal law enforcement just because they’re so powerful. Really, really wrong.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the issue of the law firm? Because the same day that the Murdochs testified, the law firm put out a statement that they would like to be released from their lawyer-client privilege to be able to set the record straight about things that were being said about them. And the importance of this law firm and the records that they kept, supposedly not even letting the Murdochs know of what was in it?

AMY GOODMAN: And now, apparently, the gag has been lifted.

NICK DAVIES: OK, so, just to understand the narrative, the chronology, back in 2007, there’s a trial. The royal correspondent and the inspector go to prison. Those two guys come out, and the royal correspondent, in particular, says, "You sacked me, and I want some compensation." And he then says, "Look, I know everything that was going on in your newspaper. And if you don’t give me decent compensation, I’m going to blow the whistle on you." So News International then take this collection of emails and send it to a firm of lawyers. The firm of lawyers look at them and then write a letter, which says, "There’s no evidence in these emails that anybody knew that the royal correspondent was breaking the law." And you’ll see that’s a very, very narrow statement of denial.

What has now emerged is that those same emails included all sorts of evidence of criminal activity, including the bribing of police officers. So when the Murdochs, James and Rupert, gave their evidence to the select committee, they said, "Well, we didn’t know that was in there. This law firm should have told us that there was evidence of crime in all these emails. Don’t blame us. Blame the law firm." The law firm is saying, "We want permission," which I think they’ve now got, "to publish the instructions which we were given by Murdoch’s organization."

Now, I don’t know what those instructions are, but the implication is that they were told to look through the emails and report only on the very narrow question, "Do these emails contain evidence that the royal correspondent was instructed to hack royal voicemail?" And because they weren’t asked whether also there was an orgy of other criminal activity revealed, they didn’t. So, they’re going to throw the ball back at the Murdochs, you see? We’re in that cover-up phase, who was responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get to actor Hugh Grant, who secretly recorded a reporter of News of the World admitting to phone hacking. He’s now suing the Metropolitan Police over their potential involvement in the hacking cases. Speaking on the BBC, Hugh Grant recounted his conversation with the tabloid reporter.

HUGH GRANT: By sheer coincidence, I broke down in the middle of Kent in my car. It’s a long story, but basically a guy got out of a car the other side of the road, started taking pictures of me. He was Paul McMullan, this ex-News of the World features editor. And I was swearing at him, etc. And anyway, I finally got talking to him. He started boasting about how my phone had been hacked and all the dirtiest tactics of the News of the World and about their relationship with the police and about their relationship with five successive prime ministers. And I was revolted and astonished.

And then I went back a few months later to the pub he now runs in Dover and pretended to be dropping in for a pint. And I bugged him. It just seemed like symmetry. And I got him talking again about all these things, and I published them all in the New Statesman. And one of the things he told me—

BBC REPORTER: And what did he—what did he admit?

HUGH GRANT: Well, all the things I’ve just said, that—you know, how extensive and what an industrial-scale phone hacking went on at the News of the World, particularly under Andy Coulson; how that it wasn’t just the News of the World, it was all the tabloids; and how money regularly passed hands between News International and officers at the Metropolitan Police; how Margaret Thatcher was the first prime minister to realize that it’s very hard to get elected in this country without the backing of the Murdoch press, so she was the first one to become an undignified sycophant to that organization, to that media tycoon, where a pattern has been followed by every single prime minister since, including this one. And he did—when I asked him, because I had heard a rumor—I said, "And do you think the News of the World hacked the phones of the family and friends of the little girl’s murdered at Soham?" He said, "Yes, I think that almost certainly happened."

AMY GOODMAN: That was actor Hugh Grant. He said that McMullan admitted to the hacking going on, the phone hacking, not only at News of the World, but other newspapers. So let’s take it from there, Nick Davies. You’ve been on this story now for years. What is left to expose? What do you think was most important that came out of the parliamentary hearings? What wasn’t asked? And where are you headed now?

NICK DAVIES: That was a lot of questions. OK, so, what remains to be exposed? So, what Hugh Grant says there is correct, first of all, that the criminal activity was going on in lots of other newspapers in Fleet Street. Whether or not we get to expose that depends on whether or not we can actually find evidence to prove it, because if all you do is to state it without being able to produce evidence, they will deny it. So, that’s one whole chunk of stuff.

There’s another whole thing about whether or not this story has a U.S. end to it. And I would say it wouldn’t be surprising if it turned out that Murdoch journalists visiting the United States had done this kind of thing. It wouldn’t be surprising if Murdoch journalists permanently based for his news organizations in the States had done these kind of things. But we need to be careful, because it is all about evidence. And I have a bit of a worry at the moment that one of the tabloids over here a few days ago, the Daily Mirror, ran a big front-page story which implied that victims of 9/11 had had their phones hacked by Murdoch journalists. Now, at the moment, I am not aware that there is any evidence anywhere to support that. And if at the end of the current FBI inquiry they come up empty and say, "Well, we can’t find the evidence," then you can bet that the Murdoch crew will use that to try to discredit the entire story. And it does worry me that the Daily Mirror shot off too early. And so, that’s a worry as to whether or not—but in general terms, I would say it’s highly likely that evidence could be produced.

And the other interesting thing is this story breaking overnight, which is whether or not the Murdoch people were using private investigators to do illegal things on the commercial, not on the journalistic, side of their operation. Were they engaged in industrial espionage, for want of a better word? So there’s at least three different ways for this story to keep breaking.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the impact politically on the Prime Minister, Cameron, and the impact on Scotland Yard?

NICK DAVIES: Well, so, the impact on Scotland Yard has been absolutely huge. You know, the commissioner has resigned. The assistant commissioner, who was responsible for the job, has resigned. They face an internal police inquiry, which is likely to throw up more dirt than a judicial inquiry, which is going to focus in on the implications of their far-too-cozy relationship with Rupert Murdoch and their failure to enforce the law. I mean, there’s a lot of damage being done.

Insofar as Cameron is concerned, it’s a slightly grayer picture. Clearly it’s doing him political damage. Will the story reach the point where he’s actually forced to leave office? I have never thought it would. But the temperature is rising. There’s an interesting story breaking about how, when David Cameron, as prime minister, hired Andy Coulson, formerly of the News of the World, to be his media adviser, he failed to put him through the normal level of vetting. Now that’s a strange thing to do. You would think that that was part of the routine. You’re going to be allowed into the Prime Minister’s office. You’re going to see the most secret paperwork, take part in the most secret meetings. You have to be fully vetted. But he was vetted up to only a sort of medium level. What was that about? That begins to look like somebody took a decision not to look too deep, in case they came up with a reason which wouldn’t allow them to hire him. And you understand, in the background, the reason they feel they have to hire him is they have to have the Murdoch organization on side. Otherwise, they can’t run the country. And therefore, if you can have a Murdoch man in your office, that establishes the connection. So that’s what tempts Cameron to make a terrible mistake. But we haven’t got there yet. We do not have, at the moment, evidence which would force the Prime Minister out of office.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Davies, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning investigative journalist for The Guardian, speaking to us from The Guardian’s offices in London. We will link to all of your articles. Thanks so much.

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