Tricks of the Trade
Posted on Jul 11, 2012
By Ewen MacAskill
“Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain”
When The Guardian first reported on the phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in July 2009, the reaction of many British journalists was “So what.” British tabloid reporters, some of them anyway, take the view that anything goes in getting a story and laugh in the pub afterward about what are euphemistically described as “tricks of the trade.”
One of the journalists dismissive of the scandal, even long after some quite ugly details had emerged, was Roger Alton, a combative, popular writer and executive editor at Rupert Murdoch’s Times. Alton, whose career included a long spell at The Guardian, is quoted in Tom Watson and Martin Hickman’s “Dial M for Murdoch” as saying that the scandal had about as much interest to him as a case of someone parking in an unauthorized parking space.
I do not know what Alton thinks now, but I do know that there are a lot fewer British journalists who will respond these days with a “So what.” The scandal is the biggest to hit Britain since the Profumo affair in the 1960s that rocked the establishment with its combination of a country mansion, a prostitute, a government minister and an alleged Russian agent.
Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain
By Tom Watson and Martin Hickman
Blue Rider Press, 384 pages
Almost all the events described in “Dial M for Murdoch” have been well-documented in daily news coverage in Britain. The book’s value is in pulling them all together into a single narrative. The impact is powerful: We come away with a clear picture of the sordid relationship that existed between the Murdoch press, the police and senior politicians.
Some of the book, written primarily for a British audience, might be mystifying to an American reader, particularly the inner workings of the parliamentary system. Overall, though, it should be accessible enough and is worth the effort, given Murdoch’s extensive holdings—such as Fox TV, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post—on this side of Atlantic. It helps that the book is written in the style of a thriller, hence the title lifted from the 1954 Hitchcock movie. I imagine that Hickman, a reporter on The Independent, is responsible for the fast-paced narrative, while Watson, a Labour member of parliament, supplies much of the detail, particularly about the politics. Watson has emerged as one of the heroes of the scandal for persevering with his campaign to bring phone-hacking at the News of the World into the open in spite of being vilified by the Murdoch press.
The cast of characters in the book includes the royal family and a long list of Hollywood celebrities, such as Hugh Grant and Jude Law. There is even a murder, though it forms one of the weakest parts of the book, with the alleged links to the overall scandal neither clearly made nor backed up with sufficient evidence. The book hardly needs a murder anyway: The story is strong enough without it.
“Dial M for Murdoch” opens with a quote from the former Washington Post star Carl Bernstein comparing the scandal to Watergate: “I’ve been one who has never accepted any of this ‘gate’ stuff and all the parallels—that are usually made by the Murdoch press—to some sex scandal ... but this is for real. And the parallels are remarkable.” As with Watergate, the cover-up created more havoc than the initial crimes. The first response of Murdoch’s News Corporation was to portray the phone-hacking, which is illegal, as the work of a rogue reporter. Bit by bit, it emerged that what Watson and Hickman refer to as the “dark arts” went much further than phone-hacking, which was practiced by a lot more than just one “rogue” reporter. Indeed, it was part of the culture at Murdoch’s Sunday paper the News of the World. That this emerged at all is the result of the work of courageous independent lawyers, parliamentarians such as Watson and, above all, the persistence of Nick Davies, a veteran Guardian reporter.
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