Exposing dirty media tricks: "It helps that Murdoch is a bastard"
Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who broke the phone hacking scandal in Britain, described a remarkably simple technique for doing good journalism as he addressed a room full of investigative reporters in Kiev.
He calls it the "hang on a minute" moment. It's the act of identifying and then doggedly investigating the part of a story that just doesn't seem to add up.
Davies had one of those moments when he thought about the phone hacking prosecution in 2007 of a reporter for News of the World. The newspaper's royal correspondent, along with a private investigator, were charged with hacking into the messages of royal family members. The Murdoch-owned newspaper said it was an isolated practice.
During the investigation, police had seized material from the investigator. Davies wanted to know exactly what that was, and whether it went beyond the case at hand. He asked to know how many cell phone pin-codes had been found in the private investigator's possession. After months of stonewalling, authorities finally provided an answer: 91.
That told Davies the hacking was widespread, and it was the start of dozens of stories revealing dirty tricks and unethical practices that were known at the highest levels of the Murdoch empire, he said.
There was another interesting technique Davies used in his investigation. He convinced a number of the victims to sue, in the hopes of getting further disclosures as a result of the court cases. That's exactly what happened, and it provided Davies with proof that senior editorial bosses were involved in the practice.
Davies is the author of Flat Earth News, in which he critiques modern journalism as "churnalism" that repeats public relations lies and generally does not serve readers' interests. He blames cutbacks and commercialism that have forced reporters to churn out far too many stories a day, leaving them no time to check for the truth, and making them prey to corporate and government spin doctors.
There is also a chapter in his book on the "dark arts" used by many British media institutions. These include phone hacking, adopting identities to misappropriate other people's personal information, conducting questionable sting operations, hunting through garbage bins, and generally doing whatever it takes to find a scoop.
Davies was unrestrained in his criticism of Rupert Murdoch as he addressed delegates to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference. "Murdoch's people lie for a living," he said. "You cannot become as rich and powerful as Rupert Murdoch unless you are greedy," and leave a trail of enemies in your wake. That provided plenty of disaffected people for Davies to interview. "It certainly helps that Murdoch is a bastard."
Murdoch's power extends right into the prime minister's office, and Davies noted that a series of administrations have been in thrall to the media baron's influence. "You can't govern Britain unless Rupert says you can."
Davies continues to get tips about other dirty tricks in the newspaper business. Last week, he broke a story about how the Murdoch empire was using a scam to inflate circulation figures for it's Wall Street Journal in Europe.
David Leigh, investigations editor at the Guardian, said Davies was instrumental in staying on the story and bringing it to its historic conclusion. "He has done something none of us thought was possible. He has shaken the media empire of Rupert Murdoch."
Davies said arguably the best skill a reporter can develop is mastering the office politics of bargaining for sufficient time to work on important stories. Time is crucial for good reporting, and avoiding the imperative of churning out volume over quality is crucial.