Nick Davies interview part two: I was certain 'false hope' story was true

Last week Guardian journalist Nick Davies came top in Press Gazette’s list of UK investigative journalists. Here we publish the second part of an interview with one of the UK’s most famous – and controversial – journalists.

Returning from the US in 1989, Nick Davies was offered a freelance contract by the then Guardian features editor Alan Rusbridger.

Having served his time as a reporter working on various publications he was determined to carve out a career as an investigative journalist who was given freedom to “dig”.

Although he says he was grateful for the opportunity to write regularly for The Guardian again, the freelance payments weren’t enough to support his growing family – by this time he had three children.

So Davies also worked for ITN’s flagship documentary series World in Action, first as a researcher and then as an on-screen reporter. Crucially, he was able to combine a lot of the projects he was working on for World in Action with his Guardian work.

When the series was shelved in 1998 The Guardian, by this stage edited by his old friend Rusbridger, decided to alter his contract.

“It used to be, we’ll give you x pounds a month if you do x stories per year. And I got it changed so it was, we’ll give you x pounds a month if you do x stories per year and then, crucially, or the equivalent in time and effort,” he explains, without specifying how much x is.

“Let’s say I was supposed to do 12 substantial features a year – that was the wording. It meant that I could go off and dig into one story.

"They’d say, you’ve done masses of work on that and although you’ve only produced one story, it’s the equivalent of six. So it was another way of giving myself time to dig deep.”

As well as being “reassuring”, this, Davies says, is crucially important for investigative journalism. “You have to work with people who will allow you to dig into a story and come back and say the story isn’t true, and they won’t be angry with you. They’ll be grateful to you because you checked it out,” he says.

“The key thing is about time. I left The Guardian [in 1984] because I couldn’t get enough time to work on stories I wanted. So The Observer was better. And then I got a book contract – that gives you time. Or by marrying up The Guardian and World in Action. These are all different ways of elbowing enough time and space to dig deep and get what you want in terms of a story.”

Asked, though, if a newspaper can afford to invest so heavily in long-term, potentially unsuccessful, investigations in the current economic climate, Davies says: “The journalism industry is financially in a bad state for a series of reasons.

“Because newspapers were taken over by greedy corporations who ran the newspapers for profit and stripped the ability out of the newsroom to do the job properly. Because of the internet taking our readers and advertisers. Because of the recession taking even more advertisers.

“Nobody knows where the financial future of newspapers is coming from but it is possible that the news organisations that will survive commercially are precisely those that step away from the mainstream – and don’t just report the same old bullshit and the same old stories that everybody else is reporting.

He adds: “Nobody can see the financial future out there but it isn’t the case that my approach spells financial doom. It could be that it provides the chances of financial breakthrough.”

Davies clearly believes passionately in the value of public interest journalism. But what if the public is not interested in stories that are in the ‘public interest’? “I don’t know whether that’s quite the criterion because if you say a journalist’s job is to do what the readers are interested in you can end up sliding down a slippery slope to nowhere.

“For example, if you were editing a newspaper in the southern part of the USA during the 1950s and 60s, and all your readers are white people, they don’t want to be told what’s going on on the other side of the railroad track. But good journalism says, ‘Screw you – I’m going to tell you’.

“Our job is to tell people the truth about the world. And if they don’t want to hear it, well, they’re going to have to find out about it. We’re going to have to tell them.

"We as a profession need to make something more like moral judgements where we say: ‘This is important. We’re going to find out about it and then we’re going to publish it.”

Phone-hacking scandal

Davies says he tries hard not to follow the Fleet Street crowd by covering certain stories and ignoring others. His single-mindedness in this regard was typified by his and The Guardian’s coverage of the phone-hacking scandal.

The Guardian published hundreds of articles about the hacking scandal in the two years after July 2009, but the story only gained widespread coverage elsewhere after Davies revealed in July 2011 that Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages had been hacked.

“What I’m saying is I don’t really care what the rest of Fleet Street is reporting. So I’m just not interested in the fact they were ignoring the story – more fool them. That didn’t put me off at all,” he says.

“The other thing that could have conceivably put us off was that News International were using their newspapers and Sky News to rubbish us. But one of the things that News International didn’t understand is that bullying is a bad way to treat people because what you guarantee is that they’re going to fight back.

“So when News International denounced our original story as being an attempt to mislead the British people what that meant was that we not only had our own professional reasons for wanting to pursue the story, but we had a second motive, which was that in order to defend our own credibility we had to carry on covering it.”

Asked to provide some insight into how he conducted the phone-hacking investigation, Davies says the story is too long to tell – he’s spent more than a year writing a book, Hack Attack, on the very subject.

“I always think there’s nothing very clever about reporting,” he says.

“You pick up fragments of fact. You use your imagination a lot to guess what the rest of the picture might be. And then you go out and try to check whether your imagination is right or wrong. And you’re really just following that simple process over and over again.

“So, for example, if you go right back to square one you have Clive Goodman pleading guilty to hacking the phones of three members of the Buckingham Palace staff. And you have Glenn Mulcaire standing alongside him in the dock, who pleads guilty to the same three offences.

“And that all makes sense. Mulcaire did the hacking because Goodman asked him to. But then Mulcaire also pleads guilty to hacking five other people – who are not members of the Royal household or anything to do with Goodman’s stories.

“So immediately you can see you’ve got a fragment of fact and the rest of the picture is missing. Why on earth is Mulcaire hacking these other people? According to the official version of events – blessed by News International, the police and the PCC – there was no reason for that. He had voices in his head or something.

“So it’s a very easy piece of guesswork. Presumably somebody else at the News of the World (NoW) must have asked him to do that. So let’s go out and find out what we can discover about whether or not that is what happened.

“So you go out and try and find people who work for NoW or people in the police who might know about it or in the prosecution service who might know about it. And you just keep pushing out from there in a very simple cycle.”

Sources

The hacking investigation and other work, such as his 2008 book Flat Earth News, which investigated the press, have made Davies a love/hate figure in journalism. But Davies says it would be wrong to assume that all red-top journalists are on the hate side of the equation.

He admits that some of the NoW “bad guys” assume the investigation and its fallout – the closure of the paper, the Leveson Inquiry and the diminished reputation of journalism – are the fault of the “liberal wankers” at The Guardian. But he notes that many others were his sources.

“If you look at the NoW. Journalists who worked there were clearly important sources. One of the things that was very important and very encouraging was that there was a considerable network of people who had worked with the newspaper who deeply disagreed with the way it was run and the things it was doing.”

Aside from the likes of Sean Hoare (the NoW reporter turned whistleblower who died last year) and Paul McMullan (former deputy features editor of the paper) the majority remained “off the record” because “they still have to earn a living in journalism – and newspapers can be punitive”.

But Davies says the investigation was largely “driven” by sources at the NoW who “knew far more than I did about what was going on there and found it outrageous”.

False hope

On 4 July 2011 The Guardian published what has been described as the most important story in its history.

Davies and colleague Amelia Hill reported that NoW journalists had hacked the voicemails of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and also deleted messages – giving the family “false hope” that she was alive.

The story said:

The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.

According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

This story created a public uproar and the NoW printed its last edition less than a week later. But in December 2011 The Guardian retracted the message deletion claim, and in May 2012 the Met Police told the Leveson Inquiry that there was no evidence that NoW journalists had deleted the messages.

Davies says he was “certain” it was true at the time. “And that’s very significant. We’d been in touch with all sorts of sources,” he says.

“Everybody who was involved – the police in Surrey, in London, the Dowler camp, Glenn Mulcaire – all believed that everything in that story was true.”

He explains that four months later Surrey Police found a piece of archived paper which changed the timeframe. Mrs Dowler had, “quite understandably in the horrific circumstances”, misremembered the “moment of false hope”.

This meant that although it was still possible that messages had been manually deleted, they could have been automatically deleted. On the original timeframe it couldn’t have been automatic, on the new one it could have.

Davies says: “So the answer is that there is now serious doubt about an important part of the story, because of the new evidence, but at the end of the day we can’t really get to the bottom of it – or, the police haven’t been able to.”

Sun managing editor Richard Caseby called the “false hope” claim a “gross inaccuracy” and Jules Stenson, ex-NoW head of features, accused Davies of “shoddy journalism”.

But among his peers, fans of Davies far outweigh the critics. Press Gazette asked more than 30 of the UK’s leading investigative journalists to name the colleagues they most rate and Davies was the clear winner.

As one put it: “The monstrous beast of a story that is Hackgate has put Mr Davies at the top of the investigative journalism tree.”

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