Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on his dogged reporter, a U.S. ally—and a gamble that finally paid off.
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Dan Chung / Eyevine-Redux (portrait)
Every so often—perhaps once every 18 months—the veteran Guardian writer Nick Davies comes into my office, shuts the door with a conspiratorial backward glance, and proceeds to tell me something hair-raising.
In June last year he wanted to inform me about Julian Assange. He’d read that the (then little-known) snowy-haired hacker was on the run with a data stick full of millions of secret documents that the U.S. Defense and State departments had carelessly hemorrhaged. His plan was to track him down … and then The Guardian would publish them all. Good idea?
Early in 2009 there had been a similar moment. He’d discovered that James Murdoch, the son and heir of the most powerful private news-media company on earth, had done a secret deal to pay more than $1 million to cover up evidence of criminal behavior within the company. Interested?
The answer to both questions was—of course. Followed by a small inner gulp at the sheer scale and implications of the stories. Followed by the sight of Nick, invariably dressed in jeans and a defiantly unfashionable brown leather jacket, disappearing back out through the door in search of trouble.
Everyone knows how WikiLeaks ended: a global swarm of revelations and headlines, with governments the world over transfixed by the daily drip-feed of disclosures, war logs, classified cables, and diplomatic indiscretions. And now everyone knows how the Murdoch story ended: with a kind of giant heave of revulsion at what his employees had been up to, and with a multibillion-dollar merger stopped in its tracks by the most overwhelming parliamentary vote anyone can remember. A profitable newspaper selling millions of copies a week had been killed off. The British press regulator was dead in the water.
Except the Murdoch story isn’t finished. It reaches so deeply into so many aspects of British and American civic life—including policing, politics, media, and regulation—that the story will continue to play out over the months, even years, ahead. Everyone expects more arrests. There are numerous civil actions wending their way through the British courts. There will be two public inquiries—into the behavior of press and police. And who knows what trouble the News Corp. shareholders or American regulatory authorities might create the more they learn about the management of the British wing of the family business.
Rewind to July 2009 and think how different it could have been. Up to this point the official narrative was straightforward. News of the World’s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, had been caught “hacking” the palace phones. Or, rather, he had subcontracted the job to a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was expert at accessing voice messages and cracking any security (such as PIN numbers) that a victim might have put in place. The police had pounced. The two men went to jail, and News International told everyone—press, Parliament, police, and regulator—that Goodman was a lone rotten apple. The editor, Andy Coulson, resigned, protesting that he knew nothing about any of it. Game over.