The Dim-Post

January 24, 2016

Notes on ‘Hack Attack’ by Nick Davies

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 5:36 pm

This is a non-fiction account of the UK tabloid phone-hacking scandal by the Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who broke most of the major stories:

  • I was staggered by the industrial scale of the ‘hacking’ (accessing phone messages was only part of the violation of privacy; tabloids also routinely paid police and other government officials for information and accesed tax records, medical records, the police database, email accounts, phone accounts and almost every kind of private information imaginable). They did this to celebrities, and also families of celebrities, murder victims, families of murder victims, police, politicians, lawyers, other journalists – basically everyone vaguely newsworthy.
  • With that kind of access they could have dug up some amazing stories – they could find out pretty much anything about anyone – but almost every story was about sex or crime: which soap star’s girlfriend had an abortion, which Labour MP was having an affair, which murder victim’s family members were having marital problems, etc. Some of this was driven by commercial factors but I think they were constrained by the fact that most big stories damage the establishment, and News International are the establishment. Close to both Labour and Conservative governments, senior police, the financial sector etc. Their scope to break stories that wouldn’t compromise their political and commercial interests was incredibly limited.
  • Most of the law-breaking was carried out by private detectives, hundreds of whom are mentioned in the book, mostly former police-officers. The industry seems to function as a nexus between the criminal justice system, the criminal underworld and corporate clients.
  • Davies is obviously an incredible investigative journalist. He’s also pretty much the opposite of what professional journalists are supposed to look like. He’s biased, vengeful, ideological. He collaborates against his enemies at New Corp with lawyers, MPs, journalists at rival outlets: anyone. He leaks, briefs, dissembles, lies. Because if he’d stuck to the tenets of ethical journalism – balance, fairness – he never would have gotten close to breaking the story. That model of reporting has been destroyed by the public relations industry.
  • I kept thinking of other British scandals – the Cambridge spy-ring, Profumo, Saville, The Westminster paedophile ring – and wondering: what is wrong with Britain? These things don’t keep happening in other developed democracies (with the arguable exception of Italy). There is something deeply corrupt in the culture.
  • Also, while the hacking scandal is shocking, it takes place across a backdrop of corporate lobbying and PR manipulation and political patronage that is just as shocking but also completely legal and very similar, I suspect, to what goes on in New Zealand politics. We just never get to see it.


  1. The most recent of the scandals you mention – the so-called “Westminster paedophile ring” – is almost certainly a near-total fabrication. Or at least, the “ring” bit is. There have been paedophile MPs in Britain (who knows? maybe here too!) but there was almost certainly never any ‘organised’ element to their respective activities. The lurid allegations of a single alleged victim – who seems only ever to have been abused by famous people – have been falling to pieces progressively over the last few months and the latest news reports suggest that the Met Police are quietly trying to lay the whole imbroglio to rest. So if this is your evidence for a deep cultural sickness at the heart of modern Britain, I’d think twice. (Of course if you really want to go back to the Cambridge spies (!!) to prove that the British Establishment is hopelessly corrupt then by all means do go ahead).

    If there is a moral sickness in modern Britain I’d suggest it might be an unsavoury public obsession with sex scandals of all kinds. But this is common to much of the Anglo-Saxon world (including New Zealand if the media response to Len Brown’s marital indiscretions is anything to go by). The Italians, on the other hand, are relatively unfazed by such things. Maybe sexual puritanism is a Protestant perversion, I don’t know.

    Comment by Higgs Boatswain — January 24, 2016 @ 8:25 pm

  2. The whole sorry affair has exposed the chasm between free speech as a human right, and the best free speech money can buy. Yet there are still those Murdochite holdouts who can’t or won’t tell the difference.

    And like him or hate him, Nick Davies doesn’t pretend to be neutral. In my view, there’s a big problem when journos and lobby groups pretend to be neutral, only to be blatantly partisan when you dig a bit deeper – it’s probably a PR tactic to shift the Overton window on certain issues. If the likes of Paddy Gower, Tracy Watkins and Claire Trevett really are partisan, I’d appreciate it if they showed their true colours.

    The end result of a society dominated by big money-backed PR is that when the rentier class screws up beyond redemption and we get things like Big Banking bailouts, those in the middle don’t blame the rentier class they supposedly aspire to become. Instead they blame the ‘reds/greens/blacks/browns/yellows/pinks/rainbows’ below them for ‘holding them back’. The collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933 took things to its logical extreme.

    Comment by Kumara Republic — January 24, 2016 @ 8:37 pm

  3. “I kept thinking of other British scandals – the Cambridge spy-ring, Profumo, Saville, The Westminster paedophile ring – and wondering: what is wrong with Britain? These things don’t keep happening in other developed democracies ”

    The US had heaps of spies (Alger Hiss, Jonathan Pollard et al) and more than a few sex scandals – Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox, the congressional page scandal, Bill Clinton’s various entanglements, JFK’s serial satyriasis, Gary Hart and Donna Rice, plus many more. The US and the UK have different approaches to sex scandals. The US is is both much more relaxed and more puritanical about sex, especially when public figures are involved. The UK approach is all a bit creepy really, especially when the UK print media is involved.

    On the NZ scene, is “completely legal” a shorter way of saying “completely innocuous unless the activity is carried out by a political opponent” ?

    Comment by Tinakori — January 24, 2016 @ 9:02 pm

  4. “These things don’t keep happening in other developed democracies”

    Um, Watergate, the Rainbow Warrior spring to mind. And that’s only where they got caught.

    Comment by Rich — January 25, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

  5. And in the Profumo case, all that actually happened was that a group of adults had a bit of consensual nookie. Everything else (such as the alleged security risk) was either fabricated or exaggerated. The real scandal was the hounding of Ward, Keeler and Rice-Davies.

    Comment by Rich — January 25, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

  6. Belgian paedophile scandal? Swedish arms bribery scandal? Half the West German establishment in the 70’s and 80’s being former nazis, DDR spies, or both?

    Comment by Rich — January 25, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

  7. I fear that a cultural bias which likes to stereotype the British (sorry – The English) as being somehow different, somehow more deviant than other people is rearing its ugly head here.

    My expat’s view is that the Tabloid journalism of the UK is one of the things I least miss. However, that was the scum that floated to the top, but represents a cultural tradition of irreverence and bellicosity which began with drama, pamphleteering, the caricatures of the Georgian Era continued through in broadsheets, satire, ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ and creation of papers such as The Guardian and The Independent, The Tabloids are a by-product of this tradition, like cow-shit is a by-product of cheese. There is a swathe of serious investigative journalism, essay-writing and tradition of turning the spotlight on politicians and kings in the UK, and bringing them to task, which you have previously noted is missing here, in Aotearoa. It is absent in many of the countries you suggest are somehow more ‘moral’ or less corrupt, because there is no democratic tradition underpinning it. Is it possible that the corruption is revealed because the Third Estate is doing its job in the UK in ways not evidenced in NZ and some other places?

    Were that the case, it would be possible to claim that NZ culture sleeps in blissful ignorance of the sexual indiscretions of its representatives, because the media here is more corrupt – I query that on the basis that the press here fails in its duty to expose such things, in fact gives a free pass to some politicians who would be dragged over the coals in the UK, often, it appears because they are motivated by political allegiances. Then bloggers can earnestly ask ‘what is wrong with British society?’ without displaying a scintilla of irony about how their query displays a naivety which has been compounded by a culture of indifference..

    Comment by leeharmanclark — January 25, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

  8. And home grown: Mt Erebus and the break-in at the Collins home. Trades Hall & Ernie Abbott. Money for a sheep farm in the Saudi Desert?

    Are NZers are a bit calmer, or do we suffer cultural cringe: and don’t believe our scandals rate much?

    Comment by Clunking Fist — January 26, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

  9. Clunking Fist: maybe we really are a “passionless people” as Gordon McLachlan titled his famous 1976 book.

    Comment by Kumara Republic — January 26, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

  10. It also brings to mind an essay by Aussie philosopher Geoffrey McNicol’s essay on why Canada & NZ turned out differently from America & Australia: (

    “Some years ago Australian social scientist Geoffrey McNicoll advanced the theory that history had helped to form New World national characters: the US and Australia settled by more radical, Whiggish Britons, New Zealand and Canada by Tories and Empire loyalists. Whatever the truth of this, relations between large and small partners at opposite ends of the Pacific show remarkable parallels, from the rhetoric of intimacy to sibling resentments.”

    Tim Watkin on Pundit also draws similar comparisons: (

    Comment by Kumara Republic — January 26, 2016 @ 11:53 pm

  11. @KR – nah, it’s all down to the proportion of Irish.

    Comment by Gregor W — January 27, 2016 @ 10:41 am

  12. “it’s all down to the proportion of Irish” v Scots?
    Hadn’t thought of that…

    Comment by Clunking Fist — January 29, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

  13. Canadians of Scottish and Irish descent are similar in number, but the Scots have been longer established in the Great White North. It’s probably the same case in NZ.

    Comment by Kumara Republic — January 29, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

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