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.