Peter Wilby 

Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman – review

Will the phone-hacking scandal be bigger than Watergate? Peter Wilby on a gobsmacking account of the problems engulfing News International
  
  

Even if you are familiar with the News of the World phone-hacking saga, you will be gobsmacked by this account. It is a tale of stupidity, incompetence, fear, intimidation, lying, downright wickedness and corruption in high places. It is constructed like a thriller, with cliffhanging chapter endings and a final section entitled "Darker and darker". Men and women fear for their lives and their families, remove batteries from their mobiles, keep their blinds down and curtains closed, check their homes for bugging devices, see sinister vehicles in rear-view mirrors, and vary their routes to work each day. Vivid characters hop on and off stage, one of them a former policeman running a private detective agency called Silent Shadow. There's even a murder. The improbable hero, doggedly pursuing his quarry, is the portly Labour MP Tom Watson – "the tub of lard", Rupert Murdoch's papers called him, in the charming way they have with people they don't like. Rather confusingly, he's also (with an Independent journalist) the co-author, but referred to throughout in the third person.

The book opens with a quote from Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post journalists who unearthed Watergate, comparing phone-hacking to that celebrated scandal. The parallels are indeed close, right down to the allegation that News International (NI) eventually bugged Rebekah Brooks, its own chief executive, just as Richard Nixon bugged his own White House office. In both scandals, dirty work was done by low-level operatives. Paper (or electronic) trails couldn't establish conclusively that they acted on orders from above. But in phone hacking, as in the Watergate burglary, top people (we still don't know how near the top the trail will lead) implicated themselves through a systematic cover-up. With a bit of stretch, you could argue that hacking may yet turn out to be bigger than Watergate. Nixon may have been leader of the world's most powerful nation but he was, so to speak, just a rogue president. The products of Murdoch's global media corporation, on the other hand, are consumed annually by a billion people, and the hacking cover-up appears to have encompassed not just one political leader but the entire British political establishment, to say nothing of the police, the legal services and much of the media.

What stands out from this book is the lengths to which NI went to bury the hacking scandal and how, before the revelations in July 2011 that Milly Dowler's phone was hacked, the company nearly got away with it. Clive Goodman, the NoW's royal reporter, was jailed in January 2007, along with the private detective Glenn Mulcaire. The police had evidence that Mulcaire's targets went well beyond the royal family and that, almost certainly, many reporters other than Goodman were involved. Yet no proper investigation followed, and no more arrests until 2011. The police deployed, on different occasions, a range of implausible excuses: they were too busy investigating terrorism; Mulcaire had actually hacked only "a handful" of the phone numbers he held; the law allowed prosecution only where a voice message was intercepted before the owner heard it.

Perhaps they were just frightened. When police raided the NoW offices in the wake of Goodman's arrest, they faced a hostile, unco-operative and (some thought) potentially violent response. In effect, they were sent packing, and didn't dare return. As revelations grew, NI's response was, first, to deny them, second, to put pressure on newspapers and MPs to drop their investigations (pressure that was complemented by the advice of senior police officers) and third, to take further steps to cover its tracks.

In November 2009, NI agreed a policy of deleting "unhelpful" emails from its internal computer system. "How are we doing with the email deletion policy?" asked an anxious senior executive nearly a year later. Around the same time, the company was smashing up reporters' computers during "a routine technical upgrade". In January 2011, an email chain to James Murdoch, then chief executive of News Corp Europe and Asia, regarding Gordon Taylor, the footballers' union official who was paid £645,000 to keep the hacking of his phone out of the public domain, was deleted as part of a "stabilisation and modernisation programme". Emails were still being deleted up to the NoW's closure in July 2011, as a technology firm used by NI testified to the home affairs select committee. No wonder a judge in January this year, rejecting a request to halt a search of computers belonging to former NoW employees, said the company should be treated as "deliberate destroyers of evidence".

All the while, the Murdoch papers and their allies were pooh-poohing hacking stories published by the Guardian and other papers. Roger Alton, executive editor of the Times and a former Observer and Independent editor, compared the NoW's offences to parking in a resident's bay; Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor, to stealing tools from a garden shed. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, described Guardian allegations as "a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party" and in April 2011 his aide Kit Malthouse was still pressing Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan police commissioner, to ignore "political media hysteria", in Stephenson's phrase.

NI had allies and clients in the right places. When the Guardian's Nick Davies published the first stories in 2009 suggesting that NoW hacking was on an industrial scale, both Labour and the Tories were anxiously seeking Murdoch's backing in the 2010 general election. The NoW had 10 former employees in Scotland Yard's public affairs department. It had its former editor Andy Coulson in David Cameron's office. Actors, who were among the main victims of hacking, are biddable people at the best of times and would hesitate to challenge publicly the owner of a Hollywood film studio. As for the fearless seekers of truth in the fourth estate, few wanted to kill for ever their chances of employment on Murdoch's numerous papers and broadcast news stations in Britain and the US. Whistleblowers? When a former NoW employee spilled the beans to the New York Times, the police interviewed him under caution (by contrast, Coulson was initially questioned only as "a witness"). The whistleblower later died of drink-related disease.

If all else failed, Murdoch's papers possessed the ultimate deterrent: the threat to investigate and publish details of the private lives of anybody who crossed them. Even those whose cupboards were empty of skeletons feared their families might be vulnerable. That is what gives a dominant media company its unique power: in effect, it can, tacitly if not explicitly, blackmail almost anybody, and it's no use going to the police because, if they're not actually being paid by the press, they're scared too. The fear probably outstrips the reality, but not many risked it. One hostile biography of Rupert Murdoch, published in 2008, was followed by a Murdoch-owned US tabloid exposing the author's extramarital affair. Neville Thurlbeck, the former NoW chief reporter, told Watson that an editor instructed staff to "find out every single thing you can about every single member" of the Commons media select committee of which Watson was a member. The paper hired Silent Shadow to follow Watson's every move, and later used the same firm to put lawyers acting for hacking victims under surveillance. Both Andy Hayman and John Yates, the senior Met officers who chose not to challenge NI's denials of mass criminality at the NoW, are said to have had controversial personal relationships, and both had their phones hacked (though they explicitly denied that fear influenced their decisions).

The saga is nowhere near its end. No sooner does NI settle with one group of hacking victims than more emerge. The prime minister's loss of Coulson has been followed by a threat to his culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Police inquiries have extended to computer hacking, illegal acquisition of private data and corruption of police and other public officials. The number of arrests is closing on the half-century mark. It seems likely that Murdoch and his family will be forced to sell all their British papers, probably their interests in BSkyB and possibly even News Corporation itself. Nothing is forever, not even Murdoch. But nobody can be confident that he won't bounce back. Many twists in the plot are still to come. This book covers just the first, enthralling instalment. The sequels could be even more dramatic.