Features editors William Harrop and Bryan Knight interview award-winning investigative journalist Nick Davies about his phone-hacking report, Rupert Murdoch, and the threat of fake news.
On a bright Friday afternoon at the end of March, Nick Davies, the multi-award-winning journalist sat down for an interview with Exeposé Features. Davies was in Exeter to deliver a talk as a part of Exeter’s ‘Creative Dialogues’ series, in conversation with Honorary Exeter Professor of Film Practice and renown director, producer and screenwriter, Don Boyd.
Davies spent 40 years as a journalist, predominantly involved in investigative work for the Guardian, and is perhaps best known for his high-profile coverage of the Phone Hacking scandal which eventually culminated in the 2011 Leveson Inquiry and the subsequent collapse of Rupert Murdoch’s paper, News of the World. It was following the Milly Dowler case in 2009 that the News of the World was unequivocally shown to have been practising phone hacking, exposing to the public a culture of journalistic dishonesty reliant on unscrupulous methods to glean information.
Between 2009 and 2011, Davies energetically responded to the Dowler case by penning almost a hundred articles about crime and abuses of power in the News of the World and the systematic failure of British governments, police and press regulators to hold Murdoch and his media-outlets to account. When reflecting on the uncovering of the phone hacking scandal, one can see how Davies and the Guardian were alone in the pursuit against journalistic misconduct. The other publications, as Davies observed, fell into three categories: those owned by Murdoch, those also committing crimes and those politically motivated to remain silent. Davies’ most recent book, Hack Attack (2014) touches on these themes and is currently being adapted for the big screen by George Clooney (yes, that George Clooney).
‘[Murdoch is] driven by this subconscious need to prove himself by expanding his business’
The book presents a damning depiction of Rupert Murdoch and his Machiavellian operations. Davies states how Murdoch’s ‘pathological greed’ may have been caused by feelings of inadequacy in his childhood. His father “was a classic patriarchal bully [and] made Rupert feel he wasn’t good enough to be his father’s son. So, he’s driven by this subconscious need to prove himself by expanding his business”. Contrary to popular misconceptions about Murdoch’s active involvement in newspaper editorials, Davies stressed that his objectives are primarily financial. The media proprietor is said to foster a “culture of ruthlessness” which is streamlined down his news organisations’ hierarchy. Murdoch “will interfere [with governments] in whatever way suits him in order to serve that commercial need”.
It is this political influence wielded by Murdoch that appears to disturb Davies the most. Beyond the surface-level impact of the media swaying the electorate to vote a certain way, he characterises its impact on our politics as one rooted in “two different kinds of fear”. The first, he asserts, is the fear that “…as an organisation, your entire function will be destabilised. So, every morning when you wake up, there will be another story accusing you of this, accusing you of that. Some true, some false, some in the middle.” The effect of this, he continues, is that “every day becomes about firefighting”, pointing to Corbyn’s Labour Party as a case and point.
‘people in the power elite are very frightened of him’
On the other hand, he states that there is “personal fear”, relating to the reputational damage Murdoch inflicts on those in power who have displeased him. “[…] people in the power elite are very frightened of him because they have all seen it happen to others, that they’ve had their private lives, particularly their sex lives exposed in some catastrophic and humiliating way that has broken their marriages, lost them their jobs, ruined their lives.” When combined, these organisational and personal fears among the power elite leave politicians and political parties little choice other than to “placate” Murdoch’s papers.
Davies brands this sinister exercise of influence “passive power”, the effects of which are hidden in plain sight. “[…] more recently, if you look at the last Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull all the evidence suggests, and I’m sure he would say, he was thrown out of power by Murdoch and his papers who didn’t like his politics… the last Labour prime minister in Australia, Kevin Rudd, would say the same thing. Gordon Brown, in this country, would say the same thing.”
What makes this all the more alarming is how fused Murdoch and his inner circle appear to be to our politicians. Rebekah Brooks, for example, has developed suspiciously close friendships with every British Prime Minister since Tony Blair, and Murdoch “gets invited to all the posh parties with the power elite”. When you look at this situation as a whole, the absurdity of an “Australian with an American passport who gets to see our Prime Minister” whenever he so chooses becomes chillingly apparent.
PR firms are benefiting from the reporters being overstretched
Davies’ criticism of Murdoch extends to the broader culture and practices of print journalism. His highly acclaimed Flat Earth News previously explored how newsrooms were being cut back, whilst reporters were under increasing pressure in terms of their output. “You reach a point where journalists are chained to keyboards, recycling unchecked second-hand information, most of it from the PR industry”. The problem, as Davies states, is that these PR firms are benefiting from the reporters being overstretched; this can be seen by detailed press releases, which these firms provide to news organisations, going “straight into print” without proper scrutiny. He emphatically said that “reporters are over and over again failing to check” these sources.
Both during our interview and later in his talk, Davies used the example of a particular South American country. The “errors” being made whilst reporting on Venezuela, he argued, are akin to those made preceding the Iraq invasion. “You have military and intelligence agencies who are highly skilled in the business of propaganda and psychological warfare feeding out stories they want published”. This breakdown of newsrooms and reporting standards thus “allows the subjects of news to choose what we say about them”. Davies does not see this as a problem restricted to print publications, but one that also impacts online companies.
‘you have the internet acting as an information sewer, contrary to what people expected’
Davies’ work as a journalist also took place against the backdrop of the rise of online media outlets and the decline of print news. When asked, Davies described the seismic changes the internet has had on journalism in terms of a “pincer movement”. “On one hand you have the internet and its provision of online news breaking the business model […] On the other hand you have the internet acting as, what I call, an information sewer, contrary to what people expected. It has become a global network of pipes pouring falsehood and misinformation around the planet.” The effect of this, he continues, can be seen all around us with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Despite this, Davies adds that the expected reductions in the mainstream media’s influence as a result of online sites undermining their business model haven’t happened. Organisations that attempt to create news, like Buzzfeed, for instance, have slumped into a decline. In January of this year, the company was forced to lay off 15% of its staff, with similar issues being faced by Vice.
The power exercised by sites like Facebook to manipulate electorates is profoundly frightening
The impact of social media presented as distinct from online news outlets; in that they employ algorithms to promote news stories that promote the world view of their users. “So, if you’re the sort of person who thinks that people from the other 27 EU nations are bad workers, they are going to give you any story that reinforces that prejudice.” This runs counter to what Davies considers to be the essential roles of news organisations, which centre on telling people the truth “even if it drives away readers or viewers or listeners”. The power exercised by sites like Facebook to manipulate electorates, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal attested to, is profoundly frightening. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Davies labels the looming tech giants of Facebook and Google “the enemies of mankind”.
Davies sees the best solution to this quandary as being to “put both those organisations into public ownership; their functions are far too important to be left to secretive profit-hungry organisations, they should belong to [and be] controlled by democratic processes.”
Concluding our interview, it became apparent that despite the outcomes of the phone hacking scandal, and the following Leveson inquiry, Davies is far from satisfied with the current state of journalism. Using the Robert Mueller investigation as an example, he expressed dismay at how news organisations prematurely pushed the Trump collusion narrative. He further warned that fake news posed a threat to democratic processes and public trust. “We would not be going through the whole Brexit crisis if it wasn’t for tabloid newspapers using falsehood and distortion to push the argument”.
Despite the admittedly bleak image of the world painted by this interview, Davies does give us some cause for hope in the industry he left behind in 2016. Citing the recent work of Bellingcat during the Salisbury attacks, it would appear there are platforms out there, Wikileaks included, where the truth is valued.