Nick Davies interview: 'Don't get sucked into thinking the stories in the other papers are the ones you should cover'

Few journalists divide opinion like Nick Davies. The investigative journalists who voted him the top UK investigative reporter variously described him as “a major force”, “head and shoulders above the rest of us” and “extraordinarily dogged”.

Other peers have expressed different sentiments. David Leppard, assistant investigations editor at The Sunday Times, once described parts of his book Flat Earth News as “toxic”.

Some Sun and former News of the World journalists blame him for the closure of the News of the World. 

But whichever way you look at it, Davies is undoubtedly one of the most influential journalists of his generation and has played a major part in shaping the reputation of one of Britain’s most influential newspapers – The Guardian.

‘Happy being weird’

Speaking to Press Gazette over the phone from his home in Lewes, he reveals that this is the newspaper he always wanted to work for.

“I started reading The Guardian when I was 14,” he says. “And I actually got very mildly bullied at school reading it.

“I’d been in and out of state schools and private schools and I ended up doing my A-Levels at a posh private school where all the posh boys read The Times and the Telegraph.

“And they thought I was very weird to read The Guardian. Well, I’m very happy being weird.”

After three years at university, Davies didn’t have to wait long to experience life at his favourite paper.

While spending a period “bumming around”, working in racehorse stables and building sites, he, like many others in his generation, was inspired into journalism by the work of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

“The Watergate Scandal presented itself and suggested that I could do what those guys have done – to go out with a notebook and a pen and expose abuse of power,” he says.

“There was an advertisement in the personal columns of The Guardian where the paper itself was recruiting a post boy – an errand boy – and I got it.”

Although it was a “low paid, shit job” Davies stayed at the paper, then based on Gray’s Inn Road, for around a year.

“It was really exciting because you were in a newsroom and watching it all happen and hearing it all happen. I learnt lots from that.”

Davies believes that The Guardian remains the best title in the country. “The Guardian is unlike most other newspapers because it doesn’t belong to a commercial organisation – it belongs to a trust. So it’s not having to scoop money out of the newsroom and pay it to shareholders. And in fact the opposite occurs – the trust has subsidiary businesses, which make a profit.

“Those profits don’t have to go to shareholders. They can be scooped into the middle to subsidise the paper and that changes the whole internal logic of the way that newspaper operates.

He adds: “So it isn’t all about trying to make more and more money by going more and more down market, making more and more compromises in order to make sales, or whatever – because it is being subsidised and it isn’t trying to be answerable to shareholders.

“So they will say to people like Paul Lewis or David Leigh or me, ‘okay, go off and dig’.

“And I think, at the end of the day, what matters to them is that the paper is turning out important stories.”

Fleet Street

Whilst working as a Guardian errand boy, a journalism job eluded the young Davies.

Being five years older than some school leavers going for the same jobs, Davies says he struggled to find a way into the trade – “Who wants someone who spent three years studying 18th century German philosophy and South American politics?”. He eventually secured a place on the Mirror Group training scheme in Plymouth.

Two years later Davies secured his first national press staff job on a paper that shared his enthusiasm for investigative journalism – the Sunday People.

He says: “It was then a newspaper with a really fine track record of investigations. They’d just finished exposing the corruption around the porn squad in Soho and I was keen to get involved in that sort of stuff.”

Despite his initial enthusiasm, it didn’t last long. “Partly because the Sunday People was changing track and doing less hard reporting… plus there was a particular guy there on the newsdesk who was one of those executives who thinks that man-management is the same as bullying. And he bullied me from hell to breakfast.”

Davies says he saw the paper’s standard drop while he was there and that he has observed similar trends across other titles.

He now tries not to read any national papers – aside from The Guardian.

“I know we were always told when we were training we must read all the newspapers and listen to all the bulletins – but I think that’s very bad advice,” he says.

“First of all, there are lots of reporters out there who are doing their job in a pretty mediocre way. And if you’re not careful you get sucked into reproducing their technique, which is bad.

“And the other more serious danger is that you get sucked into thinking that the stories the other newspapers are covering are the ones you should be covering.

“And in fact we cover a tiny proportion of what’s going on in this country, or what’s going on in the world – quite often we cover these stories in a way that is deeply misleading.

“So if you spend your time reading other newspapers, you are very vulnerable to picking up mediocre technique and to reproducing false and distorted stories.

“So I read The Guardian to get a vague pulse of what’s going on in my office – because I work from home – and of what’s going on in the world.”

On leaving the Sunday People, Davies “washed up” on the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary – “for a year I was paid to get drunk and go to parties – although that was fun, I felt out of place” – before getting his “big break”.

Five years after working there as an errand boy, Davies found his way back into The Guardian offices in July 1979. His way in came through his Standard Diary editor Peter Cole, who had transferred there to become news editor – he brought Davies over within a couple of months.

Alan Rusbridger

Within hours of starting at The Guardian, Davies had made one of the most important friendships of his career.

“On the day I started there was another fresh-faced young reporter who started – Alan Rusbridger. And so, from that first day, we became friends,” he says. “We lived around the corner from one another – quite near The Guardian office – and we spent a lot of time together.”

Although they went their separate ways when Davies later left The Guardian for The Observer (then owned by Lonrho plc) in 1984, their careers continued to intersect.

Speaking of his decision to leave The Guardian, he says: “It was a good time, but what opened up was a bit of a split between the newsdesk, who wanted me to carry on doing news stories, and my own desire to go off and dig deep on long-term projects.”

Davies stayed at The Observer for a couple of years before becoming chief feature writer of the London Daily News (LDN) in 1987.

But Robert Maxwell’s attempt to launch a new London daily failed after just five months, leaving Davies out of work.

“I then ran out of places to go on Fleet Street,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to The Guardian or The Observer (been there, done that), the Evening Standard offered me a job but I didn’t want to do that either.

“So I took my partner and my two-year-old daughter off to Washington to work as a freelance – just because it would be an exciting adventure.”

It wasn’t an entirely arbitrary choice of location. The LDN’s Washington correspondent had been Rusbridger. “And when the LDN closed I went out and stayed with Alan in his house while I decided to set myself up as a freelance,” Davies says.

While freelancing in the US Davies wrote his first book – White Lies: Rape, Murder and Justice Texas Style – and decided a book-writing career, which allowed him to “dig deep” into stories, suited him.

When he returned to the UK two years later, in 1989, Rusbridger had become features editor of The Guardian.

“I said to Alan, ‘I’ve written a book – and that’s what I’m going to do for a living’, to which he said, ‘you’re joking – nobody makes a living out of writing a book. Have a freelance contract with The Guardian so I can keep you alive.’”l

Part two of this interview, featuring phone-hacking, the ‘false hope’ claim and why the closure of the News of the World was not the fault of “liberal wankers” at The Guardian, features in this week's Press Gazette - Journalism Weekly (out on Friday).

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