Dial M for Murdoch: exhaustive account of the UK tabloids' criminality and the resulting coverup

Tom Watson and Martin Hickman's Dial M for Murdoch is a timely, informative, infuriating insider account of the News International phone-hacking scandal that has occupied the news-cycle, off and on, for several years now (and shows no sign of slowing down). Watson, a veteran Member of Parliament — and frequent target of the Murdoch press and its hackers and snoops — was an early and consistent voice of alarm over the scale and illegality of the Murdoch tabloids' investigative methods. He's uniquely well-situated to tell this story. His co-writer, Martin Hickman, is a veteran investigative reporter who covered the story for the Independent. They make a good pair, and the narrative is relatively smoothly told and, at times, is very powerfully written.

The Murdoch papers — and other UK tabloids and papers — wield tremendous influence in the halls of British power. Dial M traces the intimate connections between the press and senior ministers, elected officials, and — crucially — the police in the UK. As the flagship Murdoch tabloid, News of the World attained the highest circulation of any English-language paper, and seems to have led the world in illegal investigation techniques as well. The early inklings of the scope of the company's criminality were systematically understated by the press, underrated by the police, pooh-poohed by officials (from every party), and buried.

But the story wouldn't die. There were just too many victims, a sympathetic poster-child for everyone — dead soldiers and their families, terrorist bombing victims, royals, the families of murdered children, and so on. It was impossible for Scotland Yard to maintain its "nothing to see here" posture, not with so many different stakeholders and so many upwellings of outrage. It didn't help that the most senior police officers on the case were doing various kinds of business with Murdoch, or retiring into cushy sinecures as high-paid columnists and consultants. Neither could the impotent Press Complaints Commission maintain the fiction that it had investigated, censured, and cleaned house.

Murdoch's many enemies were willing to bring the fight, risking their private lives, risking their personal fortunes. Vindictive Murdoch executives drew up enemies lists, ordered deep background checks on Parliamentarians and attorneys, sent high-powered lawyers to lean on witnesses, set private eyes to follow Murdoch's opponents in secret, or dispatched obvious PIs to watch them openly and intimidatingly. Watson and Hickman are exhaustive in documenting the slimy depths plumbed by Murdoch's high-placed lieutenants and their thugs in their efforts to maintain the years-long suppression of the investigation.

They were ultimately undone by their own arrogance. You can't defend yourself by throwing your accomplices under the bus forever. Eventually, some of the minions on whom you've pinned the blame will start whispering your secrets to others. Likewise, you can't pin the blame on your fancy lawyers, insisting that they investigated your operation and gave it a clean bill of health — they won't sit still for it. You can't just hack everyone who accuses you of hacking.

Indeed, the scale and arrogance of the Murdoch companies' illegality was both their undoing, and is the major problem with Dial M for Murdoch. Despite the authors' valiant efforts to be both exhaustive and engrossing, sometimes the sheer litany of the names of the hacked, the officials who participated in the coverups, the bribes and corruption — well, it gets a little repetitive. This is the banality of evil, 350 pages' worth. The fact that it's hard to keep it all straight when it's delivered in sequence, with the benefit of hindsight, tells you a lot about how this managed to slip off the front pages so many times over the years. The revelations can be so similar that it's hard to remember that this is actually a fresh outrage, not just a re-reporting of last week's lies and crimes.

My other problem with Dial M is its unwillingness to set out an explicit agenda in defense of a free press. For all that the tabloids have gotten away with murder for decades, Britain has one of the most censorious and litigant-friendly environments when it comes to press freedoms. This is the land of the "superinjunction," where corporate criminals can order the news of their misdeeds to be vanished into the memory hole. This is the land where spurious libel claims can be used to silence science writers like Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre, who document the (sometimes literally) murderous quackery of "alternative medicine" gurus. Britain has the unwelcome distinction of being the world's center for "libel tourism," a place where despots can come to punish journalists who reveal their misdeeds.

One consequence of the Murdoch scandal has been a renewal of the call for "press regulation," to rein in the tabloids. But what the tabloids did was already illegal — it didn't just violate a "code of conduct," it violated the actual statutes on the actual lawbooks. The problem wasn't that they slipped through a legal loophole: the problem was that they had the cooperation of crooked prosecutors and cops, and the collusion of highly placed officials, both elected and appointed. The problem wasn't the absence of a law, it was the absence of legal enforcement.

For example, Dial M paints Max Mosley as something of a hero of the fight against Murdoch. Mosley, a wealthy celebrity who'd been libeled by the tabloids, refused to settle and refused to back off, and spent a fortune bankrolling much of the legal action against Murdoch. For this, he is justly lionized by the authors. But Mosley also proposes far-reaching Internet censorship rules, and advance notice and "arbitration" whenever the press publishes stories about public figures, and an opportunity for those figures to seek injunctions against publication. I kept waiting for the authors to point out that one risk of the Murdoch scandal is that Britain's moneyed and powerful will seize on the opportunity to reverse the trend toward libel reform and other free-speech rules, and to demand expansions to the already onerous censorship and libel regime the country labours under.

Instead, Watson and Hickman walk a fine line between praise and condemnation of the press, without ever articulating what a "good" press should do, or what regulation they favour. There are plenty of opportunities for this, too: after all, the Guardian's Nick Davies was a key investigator of the scandal, and the authors credit him with bringing Murdoch to heel, at real personal risk. I wanted them to explain how they would create a policy or precedent that would let Davies investigate Murdoch at full tilt, but not be so broadly defined as to legalize the investigative techniques used by the Murdoch press. Indeed, the book opens with a quote from Bob Woodward, who brought down a president by publishing illegally leaked confidential material — what system would protect Woodward and not Andy Coulson?

The other "other shoe" that never dropped in Dial M was a critique of the way that our IT systems are designed to be such juicy and easy targets for scumbags and crooks. It goes without saying that there's no excuse for the Murdoch invasions. But what on Earth are all these rich and powerful people doing sending unencrypted emails? Why do ministers of the government use voicemail servers operated by big, dumb phone companies like Vodaphone, instead of privately maintained Asterix instances run by Parliament's IT department (who, presumably, couldn't be tricked into resetting a voicemail PIN merely by calling up and saying, "It's Bob in tech support, and I'm on the other line with the Home Secretary and she's forgotten her PIN, can you reset it for me, mate?"). How is it that lawyers and clients send cleartext documents to one another, and how is it that ministers and civil servants keep the nation's most important information on unencrypted hard drives? It's one thing for an individual celebrity (or the bereaved parents of a murdered child or a felled soldier) to lack the wherewithal to protect themselves, but when it comes to officials and their staff, it's both inexcusable and inexplicable. Maybe the Murdoch snoops would still have gotten something on them with long lenses and PIs who shadowed them from home to work. But the fact that a crew of creepy dolts were able to sit in their basements hacking thousands of important and official phones and computers at a time is not merely an indictment of their employers at the tabloids. It should be a wakeup call to the establishment to put its house in order, get some training, and use the decades-old technology (that comes stock on every GNU/Linux box) in their official dealings.

Leaving aside those omissions, Dial M is a fabulous and infuriating read. If you have been trying in vain to keep all the crooked dealings straight, here, at last, is the scorecard you've been looking for. It's the perfect background reading for the nightly news, and I can't wait for a sequel once this business has been resolved (however long that might take!).

Dial M for Murdoch