Happy chapter in 'Little Miss Muffet' tabloid tangle
Author Nick Davies let many breathe easier with his tale of how Rupert Murdoch's empire works
Published 03/08/2014 | 00:00
In France, politicians sleep with journalists and until recently have got away with corruption because of fierce privacy laws. In Ireland, a nod-and-a-wink culture and punitive libel laws inhibits investigative journalism. In the United Kingdom, which has been kept pretty honest by a free press, the brilliance and ruthlessness of Rupert Murdoch introduced a reign of tabloid terror that caused the establishment to bend its knee.
In his Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch, a riveting page-turner published last week, Nick Davies explained why even powerful people were terrified of being "monstered". He used as an example, little Miss Muffet, who was sitting on a tuffet until the arrival of a great spider scared her so much she ran away. Tabloids have to choose. Do they savage her cowardice, or do they accuse the spider of indecency and threatening behaviour?
The spider has no way out. If he pleads he merely wanted to rest his many legs, it's "an unrepentant spider last night threatened to spread his regime of fear". Agreeing to apologise is "a humiliating climbdown"; a refusal damns "an increasingly isolated spider"; the telephone lines will sizzle with the hunt for anyone who dislikes the spider and with calls to known arachnophobes soliciting "alarmist quotes and calls for action".
And though Davies stops there, his book demonstrates how if the now imprisoned Andy Coulson had really liked that story, the spider and his friends could have had their bins raided and their phones and computers hacked, while a rival might have gone down the route of paying a large sum to one of Miss Muffet's ex-lovers to tell how her insatiable sexual appetite for flies had led to her irrational hatred of innocent spiders.
Piers Morgan, who was once editor of the Daily Mirror, is an obnoxious self-publicist with the saving grace of candour. "You don't get to be the editor of the Mirror without being a fairly despicable human being," he explained once.
The year after Morgan left the Mirror, Coulson's News of the World (Notw) won the Newspaper of the Year award for three huge scoops: David Beckham's affair with his personal assistant; Sven-Goran Eriksson's with a secretary at the Football Association and Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett's with the publisher of The Spectator. There was no public interest (as opposed to public prurience) in these stories, all of which, it emerges, were based on the illegal hacking of voicemails.
Davies heard during recent court proceedings the tape recording which Blunkett - a divorced man made lonelier by his blindness and desperately in love with a married woman - made as Coulson told him he was about to be exposed: "Blunkett's voice, full of panic and fear as he pleaded for his privacy; and the sheer mechanical coldness of Coulson as he insisted on his right to convert this man into a headline." Coulson was a success because he was able, unscrupulous and a mega-bully who rose to the top in a world run by thugs.
Blunkett, like several other senior Labour ministers, and, indeed, like our own Bertie Ahern, would become a highly paid columnist for a Murdoch tabloid after he left office, as would many other public figures who should have known better. In 2005, what was Sir John Stephens, the retiring Metropolitan Police Commissioner, thinking when he agreed to write a ghost-written weekly column for the NOTW for nearly €9,000 a time?
Rupert Murdoch's obsession is with making money for his company. He loves newspapers, but he uses them to bend the powerful to his will in the interests of expanding his global empire. Working for The Guardian, Davies would show how Murdoch and his minions used a combination of charm and menace (they had an army of lawyers to deflect and threaten) to keep the noses of police, politicians, prosecutors, regulators and rival newspapers out of the more questionable aspects of their business.
Davies had strange allies along the way, including, crucially, the wealthy Max Mosley, the one-time Formula-1 boss who had been videoed by the NotW in a sado-masochistic orgy which had been misrepresented as having Nazi overtones. Mosley, who has pursued them unrelentingly since then, offered to bankroll hacking victims to sue News International and started a process that would cost Murdoch dearly, close his oldest newspaper and send several of his employees to jail.
I'll come back again to further aspects of this story, but, meanwhile, as we tut-tut about press excesses, let's remember that it took a journalist to do the job the authorities had evaded.
Davies listened to whistleblowers, obsessively chased the truth and, with the support of Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, successfully stood up to Murdoch. There are many from the prime minister down to Miss Muffet's spider who are breathing much easier now.