'Guardian' Reporter Rocks Murdoch Empire

Guardian reporter Nick Davies has been reporting the News of the World phone hacking story for years and broke the Millie Dowler hacking story this week. The reporter stayed with the story when other papers dropped serious coverage, and investigators went lightly on the hacking allegations.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There are yet more headlines in the scandal over British tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch. The controversy has been consuming Murdoch's News Corp., Scotland Yard and the British government.

SIEGEL: Today, the Guardian newspaper is reporting that police warned Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, that their mobile phones were likely hacked. And there's more. The Guardian reports several Murdoch papers improperly obtained private financial and medical records of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his family.

Now, NPR's David Folkenflik brings us a story behind the story, the tale of a relentless reporter who works far from the corridors of power.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The historic village of Lewes sits a few miles from England's southern coast and provides a respite from London's traffic, grit and crowds.

(Soundbite of outdoor show)

A Punch and Judy show at a fair enthralls toddlers, as it has for generations. But up the hill, past a beat-up Ford Fiesta in the driveway, past a neatly tended garden with rhubarb and cabbages, you can find a lean man with a thatch of graying hair in a converted garage, peering at an oversized computer screen.

It is Nick Davies, who's reported for The Guardian on and off for three decades. The man values his quiet.

Mr. NICK DAVIES (Reporter): The view opens up, and it's like a sort of postcard of Old England. I can see this beautiful old church. Beyond that, on a clear day, you can see the green hills rolling away in the distance, to the sea.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet his scoops, one coming after the other, have caused a great clamor that's echoed throughout the U.K. It started four years ago, when the News of the World's royals editor and a private investigator were prosecuted for hacking into the mobile voicemail messages of close aides to the royal family.

The newspaper, its parent company and the police insisted this was an isolated case. Davies wasn't buying it.

Mr. DAVIES: A blind man in a dark room could see that the official version of events didn't make sense.

FOLKENFLIK: A source inside the tabloid's British parent company told him mobile phone hacking was commonplace, and then he asked an official from Scotland Yard at a dinner party: How many people were really targeted? Thousands, the policeman replied.

Mr. DAVIES: There was this private investigator who worked full time for the paper, admitting that he had hacked into the voicemail of eight people. And we were expected to believe that he'd done this for some kind of hobby, without his employers knowing it.

FOLKENFLIK: It took two years for Davies to document the scope of the tabloid's hacking, which targeted celebrities, senior politicians and sports stars. Three men were paid more than a million dollars to keep their complaints quiet, in a secret settlement approved by top News Corp. executive James Murdoch.

The past editor of News of the World, Andrew Coulson, was by that time the top P.R. aide to Prime Minister Cameron. The stakes for Davies were high.

Mr. DAVIES: That first story, that we published in July 2009, provoked a kind of blizzard of dishonesty. So within 48 hours, Rupert Murdoch's company put out a statement, which accused us of lying to the British people.

FOLKENFLIK: Deputy police commissioner John Yates announced he had conducted a thorough review.

Mr. JOHN YATES (Deputy Police Commissioner, Scotland Yard): No additional evidence has come to light since this case has concluded. I therefore consider that no further investigation is required.

FOLKENFLIK: His review took less than a single day. But the public seemed indifferent. Its hunger for gossip and scandal made News of the World the nation's top-selling paper. And News Corp. argued the New York Times and the Guardian were biased competitors.

Davies says he heard it all.

Mr. DAVIES: People kept on saying that I was obsessive, and maybe that's true.

FOLKENFLIK: By April, lawsuits by celebrities forced James Murdoch to issue an apology. and set up a compensation fund. The scandal seemed contained. But a week ago, Davies landed the crowning blow: Among the tabloid's targets was a schoolgirl who had been abducted and killed, Milly Dowler.

The private investigator erased her voicemails, confusing police and giving her parents false hope. Everything changed as outrage rained down on News Corp. Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson stood to speak in the House of Commons last week. He belongs to the Labour Party, which had also curried favor with Murdoch's editors for years.

Mr. ALAN JOHNSON (Former Home Secretary, United Kingdom): The public mood, the mood in Parliament, the mood elsewhere, was this was an obsession of one newspaper. And once we're talking about criticizing the press, let's praise The Guardian for doggedly staying on this case.

FOLKENFLIK: Davies says the story, sloughed off at first, reveals how British society actually works.

Mr. DAVIES: Powerful groups like a news organization, the police, politicians, will just spontaneously take it upon themselves to collude with each other. It's like I don't think anybody had to tell Scotland Yard to back off and leave the Murdoch empire alone. Power recognizes power.

FOLKENFLIK: And now power recognizes Nick Davies, too. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.