‘Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain’ by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman explores the background of the phone hacking scandal which engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News International. It was revealed in 2011 that messages on a mobile phone belonging to murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked by journalists working for the News of the World, a former tabloid newspaper. The organisation initially used a “rogue reporter” defence but further evidence exposed how the practice had been carried out extensively for several years under the watch of several senior editors. This subsequently led to a complex investigation and public inquiry which implicated politicians and the police as much as the press.
I read an updated paperback edition of ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ published in 2012, the back cover of which states that it has yet to be reviewed in The Times, Sunday Times, Sun or Sun on Sunday along with a telling quote from Rupert Murdoch himself: “I’m not planning on reading it”. Indeed, the very existence of ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ was only announced by Penguin three days before it was published to prevent News International from attempting to block the book’s launch.
Tom Watson is a Labour Party MP for West Bromwich East and was a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee at the time the saga first came to the attention of the wider public while Martin Hickman is a journalist at the Independent. Having both had first-hand encounters with some of those involved, Watson and Hickman refer to themselves in the third person throughout the book which is a little odd to read at times. However, they chose to do this for the right reasons as they explained in the introduction written in the first person that “we didn’t want to overemphasize our roles”. The narrative has been skilfully constructed like a thriller, emphasising the pun in the book’s title to devastating effect as well as the irony of the News of the World’s declaration in 1843 that “Our motto is the truth”.
There have been several developments since ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ was published, notably the outcome of the trial in 2014 which saw former News of the World editor Andy Coulson jailed for eighteen months and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks cleared of all charges. Yet even though ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ is no longer entirely up-to-date, it remains the definitive account of the events leading up to one of the most controversial investigations into the media ever conducted.
As well as phone hacking, ‘The Establishment: And how they get away with it’ by Owen Jones takes a broader look at the reprehensible behaviour of bankers, accountancy firms, other corporate organisations, the police, journalists and politicians in the UK. Jones defines the concept of the Establishment separately from elitism but acknowledges that those from privileged backgrounds are more likely to inhabit the most powerful groups – primarily in corporate business, politics and the media – who attempt “to ‘manage’ democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests”. The Establishment is therefore about power and mentality or, as Jones says, the “because I’m worth it” ideology.
Even though I was already familiar with many of the case studies that Jones includes here, from the police cover-up of what really happened during the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 to the questionable expense claims made by certain MPs, it was still shocking to read about these events again in the context of how deeply entrenched certain attitudes and behaviours have become among the most powerful groups in the country. More journalistic than academic in tone, ‘The Establishment’ was never going to set out a host of quick-fix solutions to these issues, but it does offer a highly readable and eye-opening account of how powerful vested interests dominate the state of the country.
‘Dial M for Murdoch’ and ‘The Establishment’ are both meticulously researched and cohesively argued accounts which dissect the terrifying inner workings of the media, government and big business. Essential reading for anyone interested in democracy, but perhaps best avoided if you have dangerously high blood pressure.