Phone hacking: where will it all end?

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain

Tom Watson & Martin Hickman

Allen Lane £20

When a News of the World journalist and a private detective went to prison for phone hacking in 2007, I had no idea that the story had anything to do with me. I didn’t know that the Metropolitan Police already had in their possession 11,000 pages of notes compiled by the detective, Glenn Mulcaire, or that several of those pages concerned me. I didn’t find out until April last year when I was contacted by detectives from Operation Weeting, which had been set up to investigate allegations that there might be thousands of victims of phone hacking.

A month later, and almost five years after the police confiscated Mulcaire’s notebooks, I finally got to see his notes about me. They contained personal details, including my home address and phone numbers, a list of the papers I was writing for – which included another Murdoch paper, The Times – and references to a trip I made to Spain. But what immediately jumped out at me was the date the surveillance started: May 2004, just over a month after my then-partner’s eldest daughter was killed in a sky-diving accident in Australia. This, in other words, was another instance of the News of the World getting interested in individuals after one of them had suffered a devastating bereavement.

That was a year ago. Since then, the phone hacking scandal has expanded into areas of public life that none of us could have expected, and it’s by no means finished yet. Victims have given evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, a Parliamentary committee has doggedly pursued leading actors in the drama, and both the police and politicians have been called to account for their closeness to editors and journalists.

At times, the story has unfolded like a thriller, which is exactly the atmosphere Tom Watson and Martin Hickman – a Labour MP and an Independent journalist respectively – have created in Dial M for Murdoch. The book opens with a classic vignette, Rupert Murdoch’s chauffeur-driven black Range Rover heading to the House of Commons in July 2011, which reminds me of the Sunday Times Insight team in its heyday. I worked for Insight at the beginning of my career, and the way we laid out our investigations in those days owed a lot to the thriller genre.

From that starting point, Watson and Hickman trace the scandal back to its origins, providing a guide to how the ‘dark arts’ of phone hacking and covert surveillance began to infest a swathe of tabloid journalism. They show the missed opportunities when these practices could have been exposed and stopped, including the failure of an earlier police investigation into the use of private detectives by newspapers, Operation Motorman, to set alarm bells ringing.

This story is important because a free press is essential if democracy is to function properly. One of the ironies of my own case is that in May 2004 I was in Barcelona, appearing on Spanish television to argue that independent journalists in countries like Morocco and Syria needed more protection, and I had no idea that I was being spied on by a British tabloid. I’ve been a journalist all my working life, covering huge stories like the Iranian embassy siege, and I’ve never even spoken to a private detective.

Once the facts are fully out in the open, we can begin to restore the trust that’s vital if the press is to do its job of holding the powerful to account. It’s important not to forget the role played by classic investigative journalism at the Guardian, the Independent titles and the New York Times in bringing this story into the public domain, and Dial M for Murdoch is a valuable addition to that process. It’s also a gripping read, a reminder that the best journalism isn’t about celebrity gossip - and it certainly isn’t boring.

All material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2010-2012

Comments are closed.