Nick Davies - The most important single word, is honesty
Updated: Mar 15, 2018
I talk to (retired) investigative reporter Nick Davies about information chaos and the internet, neoliberalism and manipulating a national narrative, and about wanting to change the world.
When describing Rebekah Brooks’ career trajectory, you’ve included that (some say): “it is not really journalism that moves her… that she has no real love for it, no pulse of excitement at the very idea of it”. Can you describe journalism’s effect on your own pulse?
Well, having been a journalist for 40 years and having retired, my pulse is just about dead. It sometimes awakens to the extent I try and kill it – I’ve had enough of being a journalist. But for most of my adult life I found being a reporter constantly exciting. The idea of being a reporter is that you’re being sent to see interesting things, meet interesting people. To be paid to do that is a pretty good start. And then as you get more established, more trusted by your bosses, you get paid to hurt bad people – which is a very exciting idea.
For the first 10 years part of the pulse was fear. I remember that whenever I saw somebody from the newsdesk walking in my direction with a piece of paper, i.e. they were about to ask me to do a story, I would feel fear. Which isn’t a bad source of adrenaline to get working with. As years go by you get more confidence, there’s less fear and more pure exhilaration in what was going on. But the pulse is dead.
What’s killed it?
I got older; I’m about to be 65. And a) that made me feel a bit burned out, the work is stressful if you’re attacking powerful people, and b) it made me very conscious that if I was going to do something with my life other than work – I needed to get on with it, because life was trickling away.
There was a bigger thing. I became a reporter because of Watergate. And Watergate is thrilling because you see two young guys armed only with pens and notebooks bringing down the most powerful politician in the world because he was corrupt. And it was that idea, that you could use words as weapons to create change, which was really the object of the exercise. But it seemed as time went by, that this was less and less true. It was true in the 1970’s, but it’s one of many casualties of the internet – the power of words. Which is ironic because the internet spreads words globally. But the problem now is that there are so many words, all chattering and jabbering, that it is very difficult for any one person to get their voice heard. And if you are heard, your voice is fed into this arena dominated by falsehood and un-reason so you’re very unlikely to get a rational response to whatever it is that you might finally be heard to be saying. To put it really bluntly, this just made me feel like I was kind of wasting my time.
If we got a decent regulator in 2012 I think this country wouldn’t now be leaving the European Union
The heart of your stories, big or small, is investigation. Can the internet evolve to continue the legacy of print journalism’s best investigative work?
That’s really a question about money isn’t it. The internet has broken the business model of most news organisations in the developed world. Investigations are time consuming and therefore expensive, and news organisations find it very difficult to pay for them.
Ten years ago news organisations started cutting back on investigations, but there’s been a second phase where they said: “if anyone’s going to carry on reading our website – it’s going to be because we’re doing things that nobody else is doing.” What really matters is the unique, brilliant columnists who explain things that nobody else can understand. So the investigation’s made a bit of a comeback, but there’s a big problem with money. And nobody as far as I know has got the answer to that. Murdoch’s putting up paywalls, and he’s vaguely covering costs, but the impact of his newspapers is pathetic – who reads The Times? It’s a former newspaper. And The Guardian has millions of readers but it’s haemorrhaging money.
Is the internet no help at all?
The amount of work you can do sitting in a chair has enormously increased, the scale of the public domain has enormously increased – and part of investigation is about scouring the public domain before you go digging out human sources. It helps us in terms of impact; the story published on The Guardian website reaches far more people than the hard copy paper ever did – and wonderfully it stays there, as far as we know, forever.
It’s interesting that one of the biggest scoops of your career, the exposure of the Murdoch empire’s phone-hacking, bribery of the police, and intimidation of political ministers, broke when it did between 2007-2011. The stories of our times during the financial crash and its aftermath are often those of ineffective regulation, and institutional abuse of power.
I see a slightly different timeline. The key date for me is April ’79 in this country, when Margaret Thatcher is first elected, and January 1980 Reagan in America, then Mulroney in Canada, Lange in New Zealand and Keating in Australia. There’s this worldwide shift in politics and economic policy, and it seems to me that just about everything flows from that. And by weird chance, I started on national newspapers in July ’79 just a few months later so this framed my whole career.
I grew up in a world where mainstream parties across the spectrum agreed that key industries should be publicly owned, that the rich should be taxed in order to redistribute wealth, and that corporations should be taxed in order to pay for viable public services. And this is an often forgotten but crucial point: that capital should be restrained within national boundaries.
If a corporation made money in this country, it would stay here. If you wanted to take cash with you on holiday you had to take your passport to the bank, and you weren’t allowed to take more than £50 out of the country. Everything changes once that neoliberal economic framework is put in its place. And the very first thing Thatcher did, she won the election on Thursday, on Friday at midnight her first chancellor Geoffrey Howe removed that currency restriction. You start to get globalised flow of capital, and all those other policies are reversed. What you’re seeing is a huge shift from public ownership and democratic power towards private ownership, and the power elite.
So how does journalism fit into that changing framework?
How is it that political parties could win elections in the West, even though the policies they were introducing were making the lives of most people worse? Firstly, they cut tax. That was so daring. Since 1945 I don’t think it had entered anybody else’s mind. But it’s brilliant. We tell you that there’s this economic theory, called monetarism at the time, and we cut tax. Vote for us, you’ll get more money in your pocket! It’s almost a bribe, but it was a brilliant electoral manoeuvre.
But the other thing which is so crucial, is falsehood. We are going to tell you that this is going to improve your standard of living: here’s a theory, it’s called trickle-down. If we allow the rich to have more money, they’ll invest it in the economy, you’ll all get jobs, you’ll all be richer. And it’s a lie. During this period the familiar enemies of real journalism, the Murdoch press and their ilk, all hammer away, misinforming and abusing their readers. Misleading them about what is going to happen to their lives, encouraging them to vote for the policies that will damage them. And part of the enormous political shift going on is that the great white working-class vote starts to break up. And this isn’t about immigration, certainly isn’t about the EU at that stage, it’s about working people being conned: vote for the execution and you’re less likely to lose your head.
Journalists are so powerful because they’re so eloquent, and they make the world digestible. Would you say that they not only report the news, but define its parameters?
Gramsci has this very useful phrase about the ‘common sense of the era’. The assumptions casually taken for granted about the way the world is. It’s easiest to see them if you look backwards, for example: in the 1950’s it is casually assumed that the woman’s place is in the home. So you can see in drama, advertising, novels, poetry – across the board, that is the way they are depicted. And by doing that, it reinforces the same idea. If you’re advertising something to do with washing clothes or cooking meals, the advert will show a woman doing that. That’s not a conspiracy by men to keep women subjugated, it’s simply a cycle of the common-sense of the era.
But then there are moments when some powerful character will stand out. I would say that the initial focus on asylum seekers and refugees was generated by The Daily Mail. They make the asylum seeker a figure for debate in the public sphere. So they start to change the common-sense of the era. Boris Johnson played the same role when he was based in Brussels for the Telegraph. He starts to publish these ludicrous stories about how the EU is going to abolish pints of beer, how it’s going to insist that all bananas be straight. Then other newspapers say: “oh wow that’s a great story” and start to do it too. And that changes the concept of the EU. There’s probably 101 levels to this but most of the time journalists are mindlessly recycling the common sense of the era, and then from time to time they break into new territory.
I’m not good with a firearm or a bomb, but I went into journalism to try to be part of that movement, to change the world.
Talking about falsehood, back in 1987 you wrote an article, ‘Ducking and diving with Donald Trump’, and you quote the satirical magazine Spy: “Please, God, let him run. If Donald Trump runs for president, God, we will never make fun of the Pope again”. It seems their wish came true as they’re no longer in print, and might have struggled to satirise The Donald anyway. As someone who’s written your own book (Flat Earth News) about the failings of the British press, how do you respond to the President’s assault on the media?
Well this does relate to what we were just saying because, I date all this from ’79 rather than 2008; but in the last 5 years across the developed world, the falsehood has worn thin. The electorate is scattering away from the centre ground out towards the extremes. It’s not just about Donald Trump it’s also about Bernie Sanders, and it’s not just about Syriza in Greece it’s about New Order, not just Jeremy Corbyn but UKIP and Brexit. And because the system is not delivering the goods, there’s an end of a period of deference where people were prepared to believe that politicians and newspapers were telling them the truth.
In that context, it becomes very easy for somebody like Donald to attack any part of the establishment and to be believed in a way that he’s not entitled to be believed. The attack that he makes is so scything and indiscriminate. If he would point his firepower at Paul Dacre and The Daily Mail, we could all stand back and cheer. But he’s pointing it at journalists who are doing what Donald doesn’t like, trying to tell the truth about him. And it makes it easy for him, doesn’t it, that wider context.
Do you think tabloid-ism sowed the seeds of brazen fake news?
What do we mean by fake news? It’s a cliché, and they generally denote shortcuts in thinking. Most people use it to talk about hostile intelligence agencies manipulating social media, which clearly does go on, but I’m unhappy about where that takes us. I talk about an era of information chaos. The internet functioning as an information sewer that allows the indiscriminate global exchange of falsehood and truth without any differentiation between the two. How is Joe in the street meant to know (the difference)? He was led to believe that the reason he has to wait so long in his A&E department is foreigners; but if three million people here are migrants, there’s still 57 out of 60 in the waiting rooms who are home-grown. Chuck out all the migrants you like, there’ll still be a very long queue.
Alongside that you have the mainstream media, the profession which should be able to deal with that by saying “hang on a moment, that information’s false, here’s the research that proves it”. But they don’t have the resources to do their job properly, and you can throw into that the tabloids who for a long time haven’t been trying to do their job properly because they’re commercial rather than journalistic. It’s a complicated picture, but it’s devastating.
You’ve often focussed on the strongest undercurrents behind individual news items – following stories about power. Why?
There’s a political aspect, almost a moral aspect. Remember I’m a child of the 1960’s when very clever people thought there could be revolutions in Western Europe, even North America. And I’m not good with a firearm or a bomb, but I went into journalism to try to be part of that movement, to change the world.
Also, I’m one of six children. There was a lot of violence against us, and after 20 years I noticed a recurrent pattern (in my work) of trying to rescue people from those who abuse power. It’s a complete overlap of the personal and emotional with the overt political. And it’s very often children. Children who are working as prostitutes. Children who are being killed by a nurse. Children who are living in poverty. (I’ve got) a very strange need to keep going in and writing things to try and rescue them. It’s the same emotional thrust.
The problem with The Daily Mail; they’re not even trying.
It seems to me that an essential quality of a journalist interested in exposing those that lust after power, is the authorial submission to a code or ideal above one’s own interests. Should all journalism hold a higher motive, be it the virtue of truth, justice, or the public interest?
Yes. Because making decisions according to commercial criteria allows you to exaggerate and falsify. What I’m not arguing for is that you should be part of some partisan political project. If you say “I’m attaching myself to the left wing of the Labour Party, and therefore I will suppress information that might damage them” – that’s not what I’m up to. I think story by story it’s fine to be partial, it’s actually important. If you’re writing about the paedophile who’s been murdering 10-year-old girls, it’s absolutely fine to take the perspective of the girls and express the fear and the horror that’s involved there. You don’t have to be balanced about it and suddenly take the paedophile’s side. But over a period of time, no. You should be nimble on your feet and take a different position. I’d like to write a story that’s sympathetic about Murdoch, because it would be different.
So yes, let’s have some moral and political criteria. Going back to that post-Watergate thought, that naïve and beautiful idea, we’ll try and do a story that’ll make the world a better place. Let’s write about people in copper mines in western Africa – let’s get angry on their behalf. Whereas the commercial motive would say, here’s a rockstar caught on the street without his trousers. Let’s do a survey of all the people ever caught in public without their trousers on, it would sell newspapers, “here are 10 famous backsides, guess who’s who?” It would be commercial, and it would be bullshit.
Do many people still hold those higher motives?
Yes I think so. Someone like David Leigh, who’s been the investigations editor of The Guardian for a long time. He did amazing work on the bribes being paid by British Aerospace in setting up Saudi arms deals, Al-Yamamah. And he’s attacking that story from a moral point of view: that this is just fucking outrageous. The bribery that’s involved, the scale of corruption, the political cover up. You know in the end Blair said: “although there is evidence of British subjects clearly breaking the law, we’re not going to pursue it because it will upset the Saudis?” The entire criminal justice system was corrupted from the top by the Prime Minister.
Paul Foot is a very political animal, but there’s a moral outrage in what he’s writing. Here’s a story that’s almost been forgotten: an English nurse called Helen Smith who was sexually abused and found dead having come out of a window of a tall building somewhere in the middle-east. And Paul was the only journalist who worked on that, and it was really about people being fucked over by the powerful who think they can get away with it.
Harry Evans, who all of us revere, and who is a great and good man, editor of The Sunday Times when it was probably the best newspaper in the world. He once said you can boil down all their great stories to one of three statements: “the arrow points to the defective parts”, “we name the guilty man”, or “stop these evil practices now”, which is a very moral agenda.
It might be right wing, James Cameron, a great foreign correspondent all through the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, usually working for The Express, he’s a pretty Conservative character; but he knows where his moral heart is, and he’s writing from there.
I’m not writing about the innocent man in prison simply to show he’s innocent, I’m hoping to get him out.
To play devil’s advocate; aren’t our moral agendas fatally affected by our politics?
I sometimes teach journalistic masterclasses, and I always start those by talking about honesty. There’s all sorts of words attached to reporting like objectivity, impartiality, but the most important single word is honesty. You can make mistakes, honest mistakes; but if you’re not trying to tell the truth, you’re not a journalist. That’s the problem with The Daily Mail, they’re not even trying.
As a result of that, you will not be able to attach yourself to the same political cause throughout your career. Sometimes what most needs to be said will not fit with your overarching political position. This is small ‘p’ political isn’t it. Alan Rusbridger had me doing big projects on schools, understanding how these areas work where government policy is entirely dysfunctional. And as you start writing, you can become engaged in a political struggle. I spent about 2 years doing lots and lots of research, and by the time I’m half way through that project I’m very clear about what’s wrong with government policy and what could be done to improve it. I’m arguing for political change, policy change. David Blunkett as Education Secretary got increasingly pissed off with me.
When negotiating the leaks dispersal between Edward Snowden and The Guardian, did you never actively seek to damage the state? Or were you purely motivated to bring information into the public domain?
With Snowden there are fierce attacks on The Guardian’s coverage from the US and the UK, politicians and other journalists who are saying that we are aiding our enemies. There was a very active debate going on within The Guardian about what we should do; we never blundered into this blindly. And you could see the way I reacted to your question: there was never any question of going out to damage the state.
With Snowden, you’re dealing with governments who have lied to their people. And there are very, very, very few cases where that’s justified. There’d been enormous debate about the Data Communications Bill, commonly known as the Snoopers’ Charter, which was killed by the coalition government. And at that stage it was clear to the intelligence agencies that if Parliament wouldn’t authorise the small level of bugging they were asking for, government would never authorise what they had already started doing in Operation Tempora.
We talked about having a moral agenda to inform the journalism; but that is not an end in itself. It goes back to the Watergate point, you are hoping that your words will create change. I’m not writing about the innocent man in prison simply to show he’s innocent, I’m hoping to get him out. I have a photograph on my wall somewhere of a man being released from death row. So when we’re writing stories on Ed Snowden’s material, we are hoping that government will react by telling the public the truth and reconsidering the way it’s operating. But that doesn’t equate to damaging the state.
What I’m trying to get at is whether you as ‘the media’ target government specifically to change the government; which is something Trump insists is happening.
Ah, OK. The Daily Mail is involved in a political campaign, not a journalistic campaign, to attack and smear anybody who pushes an agenda of press regulation. They’ve attacked and smeared Lord Justice Leveson, David Bell - they did 13 pages on him because he advised Leveson, they did 3000 words on me. This is exactly on the other side of your line, choosing a set of targets for political reasons, and then you attack them.
A colourful example is targeting Max Mosely. There’s nothing wrong with exposing people who are racist, but why have they chosen to invest hundreds of hours of reporters’ time in a four or five day series about Mosely and a pamphlet published in 1961? Because they do not want an independent press regulator.
The Guardian has set up its own internal readers’ editor after calling both IMPRESS (independent regulator funded by Mosely) and IPSO (watchdog run by the press) inadequate. What sort of regulation would you like to see most papers adopt?
I’m happy with what Leveson proposed. Because the greatest single obstacle to press freedom here is our defamation law. Why did Jimmy Saville get away with it? Why wasn’t it reported? Because he was alive. People who are alive can sue. Leveson offers journalists a way out of our defamation law with an arbitration system part of a genuinely independent regulator.
You’ve mentioned that GCHQ has become considerably “cleaner” having implemented internal programs to assure legal compliance. Has the “culture, behaviour and ethics of the press” similarly been cleaned up?
The climax of the phone hacking story in summer 2011, my personal moment of maximum power, has achieved almost nothing. I think we stopped newspapers in this country committing crimes in the short term, but that’s it. I understood even in 2011 that we weren’t going to change the power structures which lay behind that whole scandal, but I did think that at the very least we’d get a decent media regulator out of it. Which could have been very significant. If we got a decent regulator in 2012 I think this country wouldn’t now be leaving the European Union, that’s how significant it could have been. But we haven’t, we’ve got IPSO – which is a disaster.
At least people now are more informed, in the 60’s there weren’t fewer problems, people just didn’t know about them.
No I think you’re wrong about that. You can measure it, the amount of poverty and inequality have soared upwards since the post-war era, particularly in the developed world. When Mrs. Thatcher came to power 7% of children in this country lived below the poverty line – which was a scandal. By the time she and John Major were finished, it was 30%. And now? It’s 36%. That’s an astonishing thing, to have manufactured poverty on that scale.
I think on any objective measure the world has become a much more dangerous place and much less pleasant to live in. Look at the inequality in the 3rd world, in Russia and China – there were problems there before with totalitarianism but still, it’s kind of disgusting. That neoliberal model has done enormous damage.