JOURNALISTS have an aversion to being the story. Nick Davies has at least one good example. As the investigative reporter who broke the story of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, and as the author of a book that subjected journalism to the kind of scrutiny normally applied by the media, he was used to taking the rough with the smooth. And then, not long after publishing his most recent book, Hack Attack, he googled himself one Saturday to check on his book sales.
“I discovered that the Daily Mail had published 3,000 words about me in their newspaper and on their website with a big photo of me, denouncing me as an enemy of the press and a liar and a bad person,” he recalls.
To say he felt he was being unfairly targeted would be an understatement. “How many Daily Mail readers have even heard of Nick Davies?” he says. “How many want to read about him? The answer is close to zero.”
Welcome to the rough and tumble of Fleet Street, but while it seems like the type of experience that might spoil your weekend, Davies doesn’t seem the type to hide under the duvet. Now in his fifth decade as a journalist, he has switched to ‘long reads’, based on his globetrotting expeditions, which this year have taken him to Vietnam, South Africa and Denmark.
Later this summer, he will hold a three-day investigative workshop at the West Cork Literary Festival, in Bantry. The classic line from journalist Nicholas Tomalin comes to mind: “the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.” Davies references the line and he must be skilful to have cracked some of the biggest stories of recent years — and to have endured the pressures from different sides.
Consider his involvement with Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, in publishing United States diplomatic cables for the Guardian, and you can appreciate that he is patient and stubborn.
Before Hack Attack came Flat Earth News, an evisceration of the news-gathering business published in 2008, and which earned him the opprobrium of some of his peers. The blurb on the jacket said it all: ‘an award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media’. It popularised the term “churnalism”, describing the regurgitation and repackaging of press releases as ‘news’. The book also looked at the role of lobbying, and dedicated chapters to the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and the Observer — sister newspaper of the Guardian, with which Davies has long been associated. You get the feeling his fellow reporters weren’t exactly lining up to buy him a pint. “That was all kind of a rough ride,” he says of the attacks from what he terms “the dark end of Fleet Street” and criticism from other, maybe unexpected quarters. He recalls a two-page read in the English Independent that had the headline ‘Nick is a coward’. With some understatement, he says: “It’s just no fun to pick up the newspaper and see yourself being attacked.”
Then came the revelations of phone hacking. Initially, one “rogue reporter” at the News of the World — royal correspondent, Clive Goodman — was seen as the beginning and the end of the story. But Davies started digging, and digging, and digging. The stories kept coming, with more and more information tumbling out into the public domain. It led to the closure of the NOTW, by its owner Rupert Murdoch, prosecutions in the courts and the fallout from the Leveson Inquiry into the culture of the UK press.
While the newspaper trade needed to clean up its act, it has also been a painful process: some newspapers have closed and cost-cutting has stripped many once mighty publications of their old swagger. Davies says that society will be worse off if newspapers fall away, and that citizen journalism will not be an adequate replacement. It brings to mind another quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill: ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’. Maybe it’s the same with newspapers?
“There is no God-given rule that a profession has to survive,” he says. “You don’t see many arrow-makers around, for example. One of the important things is there are people, particularly on the left, who have an almost infantile view of mainstream media, which is that we’re all dishonest hacks, puppets for corporate press barons who will write whatever we’re told to write, and therefore it doesn’t matter if we die, indeed it could be a cause for cheering. And I think that’s really, really wrong.
“One of the ways of looking at it is you have some very good journalists working for some very bad organisations,” he says. “But if we lose that profession, whose job is still to go out and distinguish between truth and falsehood, then the world will be a much worse place. The people who think that it’s a good thing for us to go are making a terrible mistake.”
It was a different world in 1974, when Davies left university with a vague idea of wanting to make a positive difference and with notions of following in famous footsteps — the Watergate scandal had knocked the world off its axis.
“It occurred to me that there was a model, that those two guys, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, armed only with notebooks and pens, had unseated the most powerful person in the world, because he was corrupt,” he says. “I’ve watched the film All The President’s Men 20 times.”
More recently, budget cuts in media organisations have stripped back unique content and investigations, but Davies says the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way. He now sees a commercial reason for media companies to fund investigations. “What will attract somebody to a website is something that is really unique,” he says. “That kind of commercial logic has swung round in favour of investigations.”
Leaving aside the mistakes made by newspapers and other media, there is still merit in the gathering of news by trusted sources in “a world of information chaos”, where online trolling, “deranged anger” and “fact viruses” abound. The internet means you can follow and create the news that only supports your world view. A higher level of public debate, he says, might mean governments placing a cultural capital on newspapers and media organisations, like in the Netherlands and Denmark, where state funding is provided via an independent body.
But that’s for another day. Hack Attack is to be made into a film, directed by George Clooney — maybe it could become this generation’s All The President’s Men.
Forget Hollywood A listers, however; it takes someone special to make Davies appear starstruck, although it happened once, and not that long ago.
He casts his mind back: “Years have passed, I’ve done lots of stories on the phone hacking, it’s all erupted, this is July 2011 and I’m sitting here in my home one evening, late at night, and the phone rang, and a gravelly voice said ‘This is Carl Bernstein — just to say, well done.’ It was like God calling.”
Nick Davies will hold a three-day workshop, Investigative Reporting Techniques, from July 15 – 17 at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, Co. Cork.
An Evening with Nick Davies, in conversation with Alison O’Connor, will take place on Wednesday, July 15, at 8.30pm at The Maritime Hotel. Festival details at westcorkmusic.ie