Michael Williams

Hacking, blagging and worse…

July 25, 2011 The Tablet

It was an astonishing admission from one of Rupert Murdoch’s most faithful executives. We’d gone to lunch to reminisce about our years together working at Wapping on Murdoch’s broadsheet papers. This was a man who was once so “on the Murdoch message” that he dismissed an investigation that I had produced into child labour sweatshops as “Well, what’s wrong? It’s the market isn’t it?”

“I now think,” he told me with a deep sigh, ”I was in denial.” I had never thought of it in quite that way. The queasy feeling in my stomach was nothing to do with the quality of the steak and kidney pudding at the Garrick.

Now that the truth about some of Rupert Murdoch’s news operations – hacking, blagging and worse – is exposed in all its awfulness, I, too, have wondered how much we all really suspected, but never quite admitted to ourselves.

My time as head of news at the Murdoch Sunday Times through the late 1980s and early 1990s was a relative age of innocence compared with the horrors of recent times. Yet this was the period in which the seeds of the disaster that is now engulfing News Corporation were planted.

News journalism is a complex and often chaotic cocktail of adrenaline, risk-taking, egotism and competitiveness. Most of the time it is underpinned by a genuine quest for the truth and a sense of decency, however confused it might seem.  But the Murdoch news machine is fuelled by more toxic and combustible ingredients – a culture of fear, unquestioning subservience to the media tycoon’s political and business interests and a willingness to push the envelope till it falls off the table. As the former News of the World editor David Montgomery used to advise his staff: “Take the story to breaking point and then ratchet it back a notch.” Unfortunately, many journalists at Wapping conveniently forgot about the last bit.

Unscrupulous though his methods were, I know exactly what the phone-hacking private detective Glenn Mulcaire meant when he told the Guardian that his employers exerted “relentless pressure” and “constant demand for results”. It was precisely this that impelled many people inside Wapping to do dangerous things – especially in atmosphere of mass hysteria that followed the 1986 dispute. Many of the Sturmtruppen who cut their teeth in the years following Fortress Wapping were the very same people who went on to high executive positions as phone hacking went on unfettered, including Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man, who have both been forced to resign in the past week.

To my knowledge, there was no phone-hacking on my watch – for the simple reason there was a rule that all reporters were interrogated on their sources for all stories that went into the paper. But as the former People editor Bill Hagerty pointed out in these pages last week, editors cannot know everything, and at the very least there was some reckless risk-taking – not exactly discouraged by the News International corporate ethos.

I summarily dismissed a reporter who was caught trying to cover his mistakes by offering a financial bribe to the staff in the newspaper computer room to falsify his copy. Shortly afterwards he went seamlessly on to a senior job at our sister paper the News of the World, and his “scoops” were celebrated in the final issue earlier this month as some of the best journalism in that newspaper’s history. More traditional journalists were shocked by techniques used by Sun journalists bused in to fill the gaps filled by so-called refuseniks (journalists who left for other jobs during the Wapping dispute).

During the crisis of the past few days, Wapping executives and PRs have been busy trying to close down the idea of “contamination” inside the company – and to hold the line that the News of the World was a “rogue” newspaper. Gordon Brown’s allegations that The Sunday Times used “criminal elements” to obtain stories about him were rubbished last Sunday in a front-page story that questioned his mental stability. NI executives have dismissed Jude Law’s suit alleging phone hacking by Sun journalists as “deeply cynical”.

But should anyone be surprised at the idea that it could happen when the production of 40 per cent of Britain’s national newspaper circulation is concentrated in what some have described as a kind of journalistic “factory farm”? When Rebekah Brooks worked as a reporter for the News of the World, she dressed as a cleaner, according to its editor Piers Morgan, and hid for hours in the toilets of The Sunday Times in the neighbouring offices so that she could steal one of their stories. Was she sacked? Not a chance.

This was because nothing of significance happened in Wapping without the ultimate sanction of one man. It was nonsense when Mrs Brooks told the Lords communications committee in 2008 that interference from Murdoch “just does not happen”. Rupert didn’t need to dictate words to his editors; the interference could be far subtler. Once he swept into the office, calling all his senior executives up to the boardroom. “Why do you guys ignore the sports pages at the back of the paper?” he rasped before walking out. Some thought the old man had taken leave of his senses. But the coded message was: “I’m about to launch Sky Sports and make bloody sure you get it on the front pages.”

On other occasions he would have his senior staff delivered by chauffeur to his London home, or that of his chief executive, where the Sun King would declaim his views on current subjects. No one dared to dissent in case they fell out of favour, though one worse-for-wear political journalist did just that when he dropped a glass of red wine on the white mohair carpet.

But it wasn’t always possible to “read” what was on and off limits. My own epiphany came when one of my reporting team revealed that a British construction firm was offering bribes to officials in Malaysia to help win a contract to build a dam there. Nothing very exciting in itself. But it broke the rule that nothing must interfere with Rupert’s business interests. He was furious, because he was negotiating a complex TV deal with the Malaysian prime minister The publication of the story helped lead to the unseating of the editor Andrew Neil – and soon I, too, was exiting the revolving door.

Did I “sell my soul” to Rupert? I hope not. We must remember that all his newspapers (and, yes, the News of the World too) have produced some excellent journalism and first-class journalists – many of whom have gone on to perfectly decent careers in other news organisations. (I became deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday.)

But perhaps, like my colleague, I, too, was “in denial” – in common, as it has turned out this week, with huge chunks of the British establishment who bought into the Murdoch culture.

Certainly, I have never again been able to bring myself to quite enjoy reading a story in the Sunday Times. This is because, like the workers in a Turkey Twizzler factory, I know too much about the provenance of the ingredients. In that sense, I suppose I shall always be a “recovering” Sunday Times journalist.

There’s an oft-quoted Fleet Street saying which runs: “You can take the man out of Murdoch, but you can’t take the Murdoch out of the man”. This has often been sported as a covert badge of honour in the diaspora of former News International journalists and executives around the world – even by those that their boss had sacked or humiliated.

But in this epic moment of humiliation for the Murdoch empire itself, I don’t suppose there will be too many – especially Mr Hinton, Mrs Brooks, Mr Coulson and the 200 sacked staff of the News of the World – who will be crowing about it this week.

Michael Williams is senior lecturer and head of media ethics in the School of Journalism, Media and Communication in the University of Central Lancashire

July 25, 2011 The Tablet

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