Newspaperising the World

Sadakat Kadri

  • Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman
    Allen Lane, 360 pp, £20.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 603 9

The scandals that have engulfed News International over the past year have given us many memorable moments, but Rupert and James Murdoch’s appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons last July is first among them. While James cut a predictably bitter figure, his octogenarian father could hardly have seemed less like his ruthless public persona. The Dirty Digger had become the Wizard of Oz: an old huckster, accustomed to menacing the world from behind a corporate curtain, his frailty suddenly apparent. Assailed by a protester with a foam pie, Rupert had to be protected by his much younger wife. Interrupting James’s own strangulated apology with a paternal squeeze of the arm, he wanted one statement on the record from the outset. ‘This,’ he proclaimed, ‘is the most humble day of my life.’

As the American satirist Jon Stewart observed, Murdoch wasn’t so humbled that he was willing to wait his turn to speak. But his very presence in Portcullis House represented an extraordinary turnaround. After dominating British journalism for four decades, he and his putative heir were having to account for their actions for the first time. The various misdemeanours of which News International is suspected have so far given rise to 12 inquiries, and the best known of them – Lord Leveson’s investigation into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’ – is exposing the company to unprecedented scrutiny. Scores of people involved in or affected by its activities have trooped through the Royal Courts of Justice over the last eight months, and the spotlight has swung from intrusive journalism to News International’s influence on the British establishment. Senior politicians and police officers have anxiously played down their once prized contacts with the company, and the whiff of corruption has grown pungent.

The scandal has moved so quickly that it’s already hard to remember how it started. Dial M for Murdoch is an invaluable account of its evolution, told by Martin Hickman of the Independent, and the MP Tom Watson. Watson has been particularly close to events. In September 2006, he spearheaded opposition within the Labour Party to Tony Blair’s refusal to schedule his departure from office. Since Blair enjoyed Rupert Murdoch’s solid support, that was enough to set News International on Watson’s scent. A campaign of personal vilification followed, but Watson was undaunted. He joined the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and fought back. Dial M for Murdoch tells the story as he wants it to be remembered.

The Hitchcockian title promises a suspense that the book’s already familiar trajectory doesn’t really allow, despite the authors’ attempt to heighten the melodrama by noirishly referring to themselves in the third person. Any semblance of neutrality disappears whenever Watson encounters someone less single-mindedly opposed to News International than he is – and the class of supposed lickspittles extends from his colleagues on the Culture Committee to the BBC business editor Robert Peston and the Director of Public Prosecutions. A polemic can hardly be faulted for being quick to judge, but there is an important issue here. Although it’s easy to look on News International’s predicament with some satisfaction, we shouldn’t forget that intrusiveness is a requirement of good journalism. It was muckrakers at the Guardian and New York Times who uncovered the phone-hacking story in the first place; the News of the World, less than a year before it closed, won plaudits for a sting that exposed corruption in the Pakistan cricket team. Dial M for Murdoch abstractly recognises the value of a free press, but it laments failures to criminalise bad reporting practices without ever properly acknowledging that any restrictions of press freedom should themselves be presumptively suspect.

It all began prosaically enough, with the News of the World’s revelation on 6 November 2005 that Prince William had strained his knee. Its source – William’s voicemail – didn’t make the scoop much more remarkable; British redtops had been listening in to royal phone calls for more than ten years, and earlier tap-and-tell stories such as Squidgygate and Camillagate had caused little fuss. But this time royal courtiers decided they’d had enough, mindful of security four months after the 7 July bombings, and asked the Met’s Anti-Terrorist Branch to investigate. Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal editor, was charged along with a private investigator called Glenn Mulcaire with violations of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. After pleading guilty, both men received short prison sentences in January 2007.

That might easily have been the end of the matter. A number of high-ranking officers in the Met had personal and financial links with News International and, coincidentally or not, Scotland Yard wasn’t keen to make further inquiries. Although Mulcaire had been arrested in possession of notes containing the personal details of thousands of people, the police secretly asked the CPS ‘whether the case … could be ring-fenced to ensure that extraneous matters will not be dragged into the prosecution arena’. Prosecutors obliged, making possible the falsehood, first uttered by the News of the World editor, Colin Myler, on 22 February 2007, that Clive Goodman was ‘a rogue exception’ and his crime ‘an exceptionally unhappy event’ in the paper’s history. David Cameron then satisfied himself that Myler’s predecessor, Andy Coulson (who had resigned following Goodman’s conviction), was fit to manage his relations with the press.

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