Britain's Best Journalist Hates People Who Abuse Power
Talking to Nick Davies about Hackgate, dodgy politicians and getting other journalists arrested.
When I meet Nick Davies at the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, he’s tired. The man regarded by many as the best journalist in the country, described by his peers as someone who genuinely “gets up every morning to fight for truth and justice”, has been up all night with friends, colleagues and coppers celebrating the launch of his new book.
Hack Attack is about the investigation that made Davies famous across the world. It tells the story of the phone hacking scandal. Of exposing criminality and corruption at the heart of the UK’s biggest selling newspaper and how members of the elite, ranging from senior police officers to members of successive governments, conspired to cover it up.
The five year-long investigation led to the Leveson inquiry, countless arrests and the conviction of a former communications adviser to the current government. Its impact has been massive but at the same time, you could argue, unsatisfactory. A story which at one point threatened to bring down not just Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, but also the government, has done neither.
“There is this very powerful idea that gets journalists up in the morning,” says Davies, “that if you find a bad thing and expose it by writing about it, you can stop the bad thing from happening. But what tends to happen is that you find a bad thing, you expose it and the people who are responsible get terribly cross and then carry on regardless…. There’s no point losing sleep over what happened. You just take your part in the chain reaction.”
He might not be losing sleep, but Davies has misgivings about much of what happened in the aftermath of the investigation. He describes the closure of the News of the World as a “disgraceful decision”, and admits that he doesn’t feel great about the role he played in getting journalists locked up.
“I didn’t set out to get people sent to prison,” he tells me. “I mean, I think these were cruel people who did horrible things to the subjects of their stories and who were very willing to ruin lives, and I think these are people who have done enormous damage to the reputation of journalism. Most journalists are decent, honest people, not like these thugs. But even so I feel a little bit queasy about having started a chain reaction which resulted in journalists being sent to prison.”
He also believes the Prime Minister has pretty much gotten away with his decision to hire the now convicted ex-Editor of the News of the World Andy Coulson as his communications director. “The conviction of Coulson was a very bad result for David Cameron and he and his PR people had obviously been planning that outcome for months. They went straight into overdrive on the PR strategy which was to grovel and apologise and hope it went away – and after 48 hours, it did,” he says.
“The attack on David Cameron from Ed Miliband was very limited because Miliband himself hired a former Murdoch journalist, Tom Baldwin, as his right-hand man. What Miliband ought to have been free to say is ‘Cameron, you only hired this guy because you wanted Murdoch’s man in your office’. But he couldn’t say that, because he’d done the same thing. So he had to use a much weaker line and focus on his judgement, saying ‘you hired the wrong Murdoch man’ which doesn’t get to the issue. That’s part of the reason why Cameron’s been able to get away with it, and that was partly a reflection of the extent that Murdoch has infiltrated the political establishment.”
Three years after the Guardian broke the story that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered school girl Milly Dowler and set in motion a chain of events that led to the closure of the newspaper, Murdoch’s empire is doing just fine. After having an $80bn bid for Time Warner rejected, the 83 year-old media mogul is said to be determined to make one last, huge, legacy affirming deal. At the same time, his place at the heart of Britain’s political class appears secure, even though the Prime Minister made a great show of severing his links with the Murdoch network after the Dowler story broke. As Davies explains, “politicians are still frightened of him”.
“Just behind David Cameron, there are two people, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who would like to lead the Tory party if the Conservatives lose the next election. So when Rupert Murdoch comes to London, he dines with Boris Johnson, he dines with Michael Gove, because he is still playing the king-maker and those two guys understand that if you want to run the country, you’ve got to have Rupert on your side. It’s really very worrying.”
Despite Lord Leveson’s making a recommendation for a new independent press regulator at the end of his lengthy public inquiry, Davies reckons that the newspaper industry has also remained largely untouched by the scandal; the “dark end of Fleet Street” having engaged in what he calls “a blizzard of bullshit” to try and retain the status quo. “I would say the criminal activity in newsrooms has probably fallen to zero. But beyond that, very little has changed. When it comes to invading people’s privacy, ruining people’s lives, twisting the facts – they’re still at it,” he says.
Despite these disappointments, Davies is understandably proud of his achievements. He talks of moments of “vindication” throughout the trial of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – not least the discovery that the number of victims of phone hacking did indeed go into the thousands, as the Guardian had always said. For a long time both News International and Scotland Yard had said there were only eight.
“The trial as a whole left everyone at the Guardian feeling vindicated, because of the scale of the crime which it established. And the fact that it ended with the conviction not just of Andy Coulson, but of three news editors and two hackers. That’s a hell of a result,” says Davies. “There was a neat little line from the prosecutor at the end who said the News of the World ‘was, at the very highest level, a criminal enterprise’. That was a big vindication.”
Despite being synonymous with the newspaper, Davies is rarely seen at the Guardian’s offices. His freelance contract only commits him to writing 18 stories a year. His boss and long-time friend Alan Rusbridger describes their relationship as meeting him at the start of each year, being told what he’s working on, and then seeing him come in a few months later “with something hair-raisingly amazing”.
Throughout our discussion he regularly finishes his sentences with a “yes?” – partly to see if I’m keeping up with his argument, but also because he fears he’s not making any sense after last night’s celebrations. He’s tired, and not just from the party.
“I want to step back from the Murdoch hacking story because I have been doing it for six-and-a-half years,” he says, when discussing his future plans. “I’m now 61 and I wouldn’t mind taking on projects that are a little bit less stressful. I still want to do stuff that’s really interesting. But I’m looking to do a more peaceful work.”
He tells me that while writing the book, he often thought about retiring, regularly wanting to go off in the campervan he has spent years modifying and “having new adventures”. But in the end the lure of work has proved too great.
“I’ve had a real internal struggle about what to do. But looking inside myself I realised that I like the intellectual stimulation of work. I don’t like too much stress and pressure, but I think the work is keeping me alive.”
“I am setting out to do a kind of journalism that’s important, but a bit gentler for me than the very rocky-rides that I’ve been getting into for the last 35 years. There is clearly a danger that some sort of obsessive need inside me to confront people who abuse power will actually drag me off-track and back into doing the same kind of work. I’ve asked various friends and family to keep an eye on me and, if they see me drifting back into some ghastly confrontation, to say ‘hang on a moment, that’s not what you set out to do.’”