In September 2006, Tom Watson, a junior minister in the British Labour government of the day, let it be known that he thought it high time that prime minister Tony Blair informed the public when he intended to resign. At that point, it just seemed like yet another case of politicians falling out in a notably fractious government.
There were some who took it more seriously than that. “My editor will pursue you for the rest of your life”, Watson was told by the political editor of The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper and cornerstone of Rupert Murdoch’s News International (NI) empire. Blair was close to the Murdochs and their senior British executives. He was one of the family. It was personal. Watson should expect revenge, not reporting.
The axe fell in 2009. Watson was falsely linked to an attempt to smear opposition politicians and then subjected to a torrent of abuse in the Murdoch press: he was a “mad dog”, a “tub of lard”, “poisonous” and a “stain on the government’s credibility”. Meanwhile, people close to the prime minister were texted with the demand they sack him and three men, one with a camera, staged an attempted break-in at his home.
Watson had been given the treatment, although not the full tabloid treatment. What he got was just enough to let him know that the most ruthless news machine in the country thought of him as an enemy. But instead of crawling off into a corner somewhere and hoping no one would notice him, Watson became a dogged and resourceful opponent of the empire, ramrodding the parliamentary end of a series of inquiries that planned to reveal the extent of corruption and influence peddling in Murdoch’s British interests.
Dial M for Murdoch is the story of what he and others found in uncovering an affair that has seen the arrests of multiple journalists and executives, the closure of Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper, the resignation of the chief of London’s Metropolitan Police and the paying out of millions of pounds in compensation, all conducted against the background thunder of senior politicians stampeding away from a man whose favour they once competed for. In the case of the current government, it may be that they are not stampeding far enough or fast enough.
The book is co-written by Watson and Martin Hickman, a journalist at The Independent. Presumably it is to Hickman that we owe a lucid account of multiple intersecting scandals that both requires and rewards careful reading. Dial M for Murdoch is not an angry, flashy polemic, though there is an enlivening vein of anger running under the surface. Instead it has the measured, systematic tread of dirt being stamped on a grave. It is the brief of an executioner equipped with all the necessary data.
What it uncovers is corruption as an emergent phenomena, spreading outwards in a moral vacuum from outright criminality through layers of ethical squalor, power worship and endemic complacency until it eventually becomes established as a new normal – a “shadow state” in Watson and Hickman’s words.
At the heart of this, say the authors, was the ruthless newsroom culture established in Murdoch’s British tabloids, where journalists were driven to get the story by any means necessary and given complete impunity if the methods they used were successful. In the first instance, this meant establishing networks of bribable people – notably in the police but also in other major public institutions. As technology advanced, so did what journalists cheerily called the “Dark Arts”, into phone and computer hacking.
The authors make clear that the “Dark Arts” extended far beyond NI. What was different about the Murdoch interests was its use of what might be called the “Even Darker Arts”, ie the way it used the undoubted success of newspaper assets to make itself politically untouchable.
During the 1980s, the relationship between Murdoch and the Thatcher government was a familiar transactional affair between ideological co-thinkers.
Under Labour’s Tony Blair it became something stranger. Labour had been very roughly handled by the Murdoch press, and Blair responded by making it a priority of his government to act in ways that pleased Murdoch’s editors. With Cameron, a kind of fusion happened: he not only developed close links to senior Murdoch operatives but also basically adopted NI’s business plan as his government’s media policy.
Meanwhile, NI’s relationship with the police developed beyond giving stuffed envelopes to dodgy cops in return for interesting facts pulled from the Police National Computer. Senior officers were invited to write, or have written for them, lucrative newspaper columns. Journalists volunteered their services as police informers in return for advance information. Others went over to London’s Metropolitan Police as consultants or for an easy gig in the press office.
Illegal methods drove newspaper sales. Popular newspapers bought political influence and a close working relationship with policemen high and low. And that created a sense of impunity.
The result was a kind of rampage.
The editor of the News of the World, who later goes on to become David Cameron’s director of communications, gets up at an award ceremony and attributes his newspaper’s success to a mobile phone company’s terrible security. An ex-MI6 officer whistleblowing about infiltrating the IRA has his emails redirected to a tabloid journalist. A senior police officer investigating a murder is subjected to a campaign of intimidation by the News of the World at the request of the prime suspect, who provides them with information from corrupt detectives and who is in jail himself at the time on another charge.
Ordinarily, any one of these cases would be a scandal. In the world of Dial M for Murdoch they are just data points.
It takes a lot of long, slow work by Watson’s parliamentary committee to uncover all of this, against constant stonewalling by NI, a dilatory police investigation and the constant threat of retaliation.
At one stage, several journalists are assigned to dig all the dirt they can on his committee members. Eventually, the dam bursts when the journalist Nick Davies, who has been conducting his own investigation, reveals that News of the World journalists hacked the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl murdered by a serial killer. It was this revelation that eventually led to the closure of the paper and the avalanche of police, parliamentary and judicial inquiries that have driven the story since.
At one point, the authors note that this denouement was a triumph of the English provinces over the metropolis: Watson is an MP for a seat in the Midlands, Davies appears to never go to London unless he has to, and solicitors in Manchester stubbornly pursued the cases of phone-hacking victims. The London-based media and political worlds seemed mostly quite comfortable with both the influence of NI and the means by which it was acquired.
What’s especially depressing is the sheer lowness of it all. No one seriously thought they were doing terrible things in pursuit of some justifying end or even had any substantial criminal motive. Those directly responsible don’t seem to have needed any justification beyond the fun of being part of a powerful gang. Perhaps understandably, most of the people the gang dealt with didn’t want to meddle with the machine. Anyway, they paid well and they could do you a lot of good if you got on the right side of them.
Dial M for Murdoch ends by telling us that its story is incomplete. Aside from whatever else is uncovered in the UK, the FBI are taking an interest under America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. At his latest appearance before Watson’s Committee, Rupert Murdoch seemed to have nothing but a weary contempt for Britain: not just for the place where so many of his employees, so he says, betrayed him without his knowledge, but for the political establishment that was once drawn to his power and now spurns him. A lot of people in Britain might agree with Rupert on this, despite the obviously self-serving motives in play. But still, it would be nice to have the country back.
Jamie Kenny is a London-based journalist and writer.