Sinlung /
16 July 2011

How 3 Men Took On Mighty Murdoch

A journalist, a politician and an actor helped defend democracy, privacy and clean journalism

How three men took on mighty Murdoch

NICK DAVIES: A freelance journalist who is probably Britain’s answer to American journalist Bob Woodward who cut short President Nixon’s term in the White House with his reporting on the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.


On Monday, July 4, when Britain woke up to the news in the Guardian that in 2002 dead teenager Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked by one of Rupert Murdoch's papers, News of the World (NOTW), Prime Minister David Cameron was in Kabul rubbing shoulders with President Hamid Karzai. Outside the presidential palace, the two leaders were ready to address the media. As a young and confident Western leader, Cameron looked very much in charge and ready to answer any question. He turned to Karzai and said that in keeping with "tradition" the first question must go to Britain's national broadcaster, BBC. But the BBC reporter was not interested in troop deployment, the post-Osama scenario or the training of Afghan police. It was a question about Dowler's phone being hacked by NOTW.

Most journalists at the conference wondered why the chance to shoot the first question was wasted on a very "local UK issue"? A week later, the world realised that the issue was not local. It became an existential challenge for one of the world's biggest media empires, built by 80-year-old Australian-American Murdoch.

The news was broken by freelance journalist Nick Davies in the Guardian. Davies has been a journalist for 35 of his 58 years. After working for a host of papers, including the Observer and the London Daily News, he started writing for the Guardian in 1989. "Davies has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year for his investigations into crime, drugs, poverty and other social issues," his website says. "Hundreds of journalists have attended his one-day masterclass on the techniques of investigative reporting in Britain, Canada, China, Germany, India and South Africa."

How three men took on mighty Murdoch

RUPERT MURDOCH: With growing public indignation, Murdoch announced that the tabloid, which was founded on October 1, 1843, would publish its last edition on July 10.

Davies is probably Britain's answer to American journalist Bob Woodward who cut short President Nixon's term in the White House with his reporting on the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. It may be a little too early to predict whether Cameron's government will fall on account of "Millygate", but it has changed the way Cameron postures regarding his relationship with Murdoch and News Corp's media empire.

In an interview, Davies said, "When I wrote the story about Dowler, I sent an email to [my] editor saying I think this is the most powerful story so far. But I did not foresee the extent of the emotional impact. It was almost unreal to watch... The prime minister, who had been so close to Murdoch and keen to defend the BSkyB acquisition [since dropped] and defend [Andy] Coulson [NOTW's former editor and Cameron's communications director, who resigned in January], suddenly flipped his position."

The Dowler revelation was the final straw in the hacking scandal that dates back to 2005 when NOTW published a story about Prince William's knee injury that came from sources listening into his voicemail. This led to the arrest of a reporter and a private investigator working for the paper. Since then Davies had stayed on the story, despite the ridicule of his professional peers. July 4 was his payday. Scotland Yard, his report said, had found evidence that NOTW journalists hired investigators to hack into Dowler's voicemail; not just that, they even deleted some messages, which gave her friends and family false hope that she was still alive. This amounted to destruction of crucial evidence about her abduction and murder by a serial killer.

With growing public indignation, Murdoch announced that the tabloid, which was founded on October 1, 1843, would publish its last edition on July 10. Murdoch had entered the UK with the NOTW acquisition in 1968. Subsequently, he added the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times to his portfolio. Davies says there is more to come.

How three men took on mighty Murdoch

TOM WATSON: No friend of Murdoch, Watson has campaigned against News Corp’s alleged phone-hacking for over two years


This 44-year-old Labour Member of Parliament, who has held on to his constituency of West Bromwich East since 2001, is not a friend to Murdoch. He has campaigned against News Corp's alleged phone-hacking for over two years. Watson shot to fame in September 2006 when he demanded that Tony Blair, the prime minister, quit to end the uncertainty over his succession. Watson was asked to either resign his ministership or take back the letter. He chose to resign, and Blair had to step down.

That was the beginning of Watson's run-in with Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International (Murdoch's holding company for the UK; she was then the editor of the Sun), who on Friday finally quit her post. Thus began, Watson alleges, a long stint of harassment by journalists who would turn up at his doorstep unannounced and even rummage through his garbage bins for clues. He snapped when the neighbours began to complain that their garbage bins too were being searched and his three-year-old child hid behind the sofa "because there was another nasty man at the door".

How three men took on mighty Murdoch

DAVID CAMERON: In the dock for protecting Murdoch.

Watson responded with a long campaign against the media baron. Watson is today the backbencher (an opposition MP without a shadow ministerial berth) who managed to successfully take on Murdoch's empire. He has done what five successive British prime ministers, starting with Margaret Thatcher, thought was unthinkable -- fight Murdoch and win.

In January this year, criticising Glenn Beck, the American TV and radio host who was, till recently, employed by Murdoch, Watson wrote, "If Beck were here today I would say to him: 'Glenn Beck, you are a bigot. You bring shame to your country, not because you lack balance, but because you are an unthinking buffoon. Murdoch tolerates you because you are his useful idiot. He uses you to get a foothold in the doors of the powerful. Like his phone-hacking journalists and his pugnacious leader-writers in Australia, you are expendable. Let us hope he disposes of your nasty brand of intolerance sooner rather than later.' It is Rupert and James Murdoch who should answer for bigots such as Glenn Beck and phone hackers such as Clive Goodman [a former NOTW journalist now under arrest] and Glen Mulcaire [a private investigator hired by NOTW]. They employ them. They promote them. They are responsible for them. It is time for thinking citizens in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia to unite against the Murdochs' vicious brand of politics that masquerades as publishing."

Watson was considered a key ally of Gordon Brown in the 2006 coup against Tony Blair. Under Brown's leadership, he became the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office between January 2008 and June 2009. A perennial campaigner, last week as events unfolded he emerged as a virtuous hero in Westminster, a windfall that his friends and enemies both expect him to turn into political capital.

How three men took on mighty Murdoch

HUGH GRANT: He fought Murdoch having suffered bugging himself. He decided to take matters into his own hands by doing a sting operation on former NOTW features editor Paul McMullan.


The third actor is an actor in real life. He fought Murdoch and is now smiling from ear to ear. Hugh Grant, 50, who hit Hollywood's spotlight with the 1990s blockbusters Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mickey Blue Eyes and Notting Hill, decided to turn into a spook in real life.

Having suffered bugging himself, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He exploited a chance meeting with former NOTW features editor Paul McMullan. He took McMullan's invitation to visit a pub owned by him in Dover, but went with a pen microphone hidden in his pocket. Grant spoke to McMullan over two pints of Spitfire ale and recorded the latter's version of how NOTW operated. Then Grant wrote a piece for New Statesman magazine containing a lengthy extract of the conversation. This event, though it created ripples in the local press, did not cause the damage to Murdoch's empire; that happened when Davies exposed the scandal about Dowler's voicemail being hacked in the Guardian of July 4.

How three men took on mighty Murdoch

REBEKAH BROOKS: The chief executive of News International (Murdoch’s holding company for the UK; she was then the editor of the Sun), finally quit her post on Friday.

Since then, Grant has been appearing more on news channels and less on celebrity shows. Today Grant supports the Hacked Off campaign, along with Watson, that is garnering support in UK against the phone-hacking techniques used by tabloid journalists.

Grant's scraps with Murdoch's News International goes back to 1996 when the actor won a libel case again the media group's now defunct paper Today. Even after NOTW had closed shop, Grant went on BBC's late night show Question Time and called Murdoch's decision a "cynical managerial manoeuvre". In the same programme he also openly stated that British MPs were terrified of Murdoch's News International. Grant called the MPs' reluctance to question the group's executives a protection racket designed to save their own personal lives.

Since the phone-hacking scandal has come to the national and international media's attention, Grant has become one of the most prominent faces in the anti-Murdoch camp. For his spook-work and successful campaign against Murdoch's media empire, Grant is now credited with "turning the table" on tabloid journalism in UK -- the kind of journalism of which he was one of the most prominent celebrity victims.


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