January 31, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
All great democracies need great journalists. You can’t hold the powerful to account without courage.
“It all started with a knee” said Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist as he began his talk at our school the other day. The knee in question was Prince William’s and he had hurt it on a skiing trip in 2005. He called one of his people in London, leaving a message on her voicemail asking her to book him in to see a Doctor when he got back. Meanwhile, somewhere in Wapping, Clive Goodman, the Royal reporter for the News of the World, was listening to the message William left, because he could access the voicemails of many of William’s staff due to the sterling work of Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who knew how to get hold of voicemail PINs. Goodman thought he was clever, so he wrote the story about William’s knee by purposely getting it wrong…saying that he had been to see a Doctor. But the Palace had worked out that the only way he could be getting this information was through phone hacking. In January 2007, Goodman and Mulcaire were convicted of phone hacking. The News of the World said they were “rogue reporters”, and the police said there was no more evidence available that phone hacking was endemic at the paper. Both police and paper may have reckoned that was the end of it. They reckoned without Nick Davies.
Davies didn’t believe that there was no more evidence. He wrote this in the Guardian. The News of the World claimed that he, and therefore the Guardian, were lying. Which meant that the Guardian were now under attack, and needed to respond.
So Davies started searching for more. The problem was that, whilst he suspected that the police had a serious amount of evidence, he couldn’t get them to turn that evidence over. But what he did have was a list of people that ex-News of the World journalists were telling him had had their phones hacked. So he came up with an idea. He would ask a series of them to sue the News of the World. They would get a nice amount of money to spend on a holiday, and Davies would get access to the evidence that he believed the police were sitting on. If a judge asks the police to surrender evidence that the prosecution believes they have, then they must comply. Gradually, it became clear that in 2006 the police had been in possession of Glenn Mulcaire’s notebook, which contained details of all the people whose mobile phone voicemail details he had obtained.
This fact is key. The police knew that a crime had been committed, not on the 8 people that Clive Goodman had been convicted of hacking, but on what turned out to be 5,500 people, but had decided not to investigate. Nick Davies started to realise why this was so. The News of the World, and the Sun, held an enormous amount of power. It was using it to get away with committing a crime. Nick Davies admitted that the crime itself was quite small (hence the small sentences for those convicted of it), but the abuse of power was massive.
Davies told the story of the extent to which it was possible to wield the power that being the Editor, a journalist on, or the owner of papers with the circulation of the Sun and News of the World. You could have meetings with the Prime Minister, or the Chancellor, or whomever you wanted. You could ask for things. Or, in fact, you didn’t ask for things, you just suggested what you might like to happen in a passing conversation, or even simply by existing, and you would get it. Tony Blair wanted to go into the Euro, but we didn’t go in. Rupert Murdoch didn’t want to. He did, however, think we should invade Iraq, and we know what happened there. Those were big issues, but how about this…when Rebecca Brooks (Editor of the Notw) started going out in 2006 with her new boyfriend (now husband) Charlie Brooks, it came to the attention of a Gordon Brown that Brooks wasn’t happy with the horse racing levy that existed at the time. Brown wanted to be PM. Horse racing levy gone. There is, of course, no proof any of this is connected, but quite a few Blair and Brown staffers have written books that suggest that these things are more than a simple coincidence. There are many stories that could be told of the politicians who were politely informed that unless they did things in a certain way they might find a story in the papers very quickly.
Davies told us however, that the use and abuse of power was at a much more personal level. During the recent hacking trial of former NOtW editor Andy Coulson, a tape was played of a conversation that he had had with a David Blunkett. Blunkett was Home Secretary at the time and Coulson had evidence (gained from phone tapping) that Blunkett and Kimberley Quinn, then Editor of the Spectator were having an affair, and she was expecting his baby. Quinn was married, but here was a great example of the difference between something being in the public interest and just being interesting to the public. The tape that was played in court was, according to Davies, quote heart-breaking. Blunkett, blind and not getting any younger, pleaded with Coulson to not print the story, as this was his chance to find love. Coulson, quite politely, refused to comply. The story was printed, and Blunkett and Quinn were dragged through the mud for weeks. For what? To sell papers.
Nick Davies could have given up. He was attacked as a fantasist, followed by private investigators, and many journalists might have given up, seeing how much power they were up against. But eventually, in great democracies, even those with great power need to be held accountable. It just took a great and courageous journalist to do so.