“I would say I’m just Nick Davies from The Guardian. It doesn’t make any sense, all this ‘greatest investigative reporter’ stuff, it’s completely unscientific.”
Our conversation starts with the subject of Nick’s adopted home town. “One of the few good decisions I made in life – with the mother of my children – was moving out of London to come here. Lewes has become a refuge where it’s basically peaceful and the air is clear. It doesn’t matter whether I’m going through a good phase where everybody’s saying ‘well done’ or a bad phase where everybody’s saying I’m the devil's seed, the people I bump into in the streets of Lewes couldn’t care less; they just treat me the same way. So it makes me feel extremely safe.”
In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Nick wrote Flat Earth News, “a book about the media and why we so often push out stories that are full of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.” He then investigated ‘phone hacking’, which led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper and a number of arrests.
“The hacking scandal itself has got several years to run. There’s a lot of people awaiting trial. There’s a lot more people who’ve been arrested and are waiting to discover whether they will be prosecuted. Its ramifications for Rupert Murdoch have yet to work their way through, because there may be an inquiry by the FBI into the parent company. We haven’t finished on the implications for media regulation; there’s a tremendous struggle going on about what should happen. And we haven’t resolved the most important thing, which is about the political power of media proprietors.”
The story so far is told in Nick’s latest book Hack Attack, now due to become a film directed by George Clooney. I tell Nick that I was surprised how much of the hacking investigation involved his work. “There was a small group of people”, he points out. “Me and two or three MPs and a handful of lawyers – and then more journalists become involved. It definitely isn’t a one-man show but it’s quite a small group.”
Was there a point that Nick thought (or realised) he was becoming part of the story? “There was a specific sense in which I and the editor at the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, were worried that we would become the story – which was that the newspapers involved in committing crimes might choose to punish us by exposing our private lives. That in itself would be scary – and if you consider the amount of distortion they would pour into it, it would be really very worrying. As it turned out, they went after one of the MPs – Tom Watson – and two of the lawyers. The News of the World hired a private investigator who specialises in covert surveillance to follow them and secretly video them, hoping to catch them out in some kind of inappropriate sexual behaviour that could be used to punish them, humiliate them and deter them from investigating. But that was fruitless because they didn’t find those three people doing anything. And as far as I know, they didn’t do it to me.”
Does Nick think his work has adversely affected press regulation… and can journalists ever be justified in breaking the law? “Well, we’ve got no regulation at all – so nothing’s changed there! You’re seeing the law being enforced, which is a rather different thing. I’m a hundred percent sure we haven’t reduced the freedom of the press.”
“I think just about everybody recognises that it can, in unusual circumstances, be right to break a moral rule or break the law for some important reason. What went wrong in some of these newspapers was the commercial drive to make profit simply took over. The breaking of rules and the breaking of laws was no longer exceptional, it was routine. And these are crimes which have victims.”
Yet despite his high-profile work in exposing wrongdoing, Nick admits the results aren’t always permanent. “I don’t have any illusions about the power of the press – or the power of a writer”, he says. “You expose the bad thing, the people responsible for it get very angry with you and make all sorts of threats and loud noises... and then they carry on regardless. I think we’ve reduced the level of crime in newspapers to zero for a while – but other than that, I don’t think we’ve achieved very much. That doesn’t surprise me. Words aren’t always as powerful as they were for Tom Paine.”
Tom Paine is the 18th-century democracy campaigner who lived in Lewes for several years, later writing works that supported American Independence and the French Revolution.
“Recently I was watching a documentary about Tom Paine. And it struck me that perhaps no human being in history – with the possible exception of Jesus – has ever had such impact on events, purely by using words.”
What books does Nick like to settle down with? “I read a lot of Henning Mankell, the Swedish detective writer. He’s telling you a good story but he’s also getting you to think about the world.” And journalism? “The best books by journalists or about journalists… I would say Harry Evans, who used to be editor of the Sunday Times. His memoirs, called Good Times, Bad Times, are just wonderful. Stories behind stories. All journalists should read it.”
“I like Tom Wolfe’s early stuff. His early stuff, when he’s just writing non-fiction, is incredibly well researched and vividly written. I think Charles Dickens is interesting, too. He worked as a journalist as well as a novelist. And he’s like Henning Mankell in his novels; Oliver Twist is a furiously angry exposure of child poverty in Victorian Britain. He’s telling a great story and trying to tell you something important about the world.”
Nick Davies is talking this month at an event arranged by Lewes Liberal Democrats. Does this suggest he might be considering a move into politics?
“No, no, no. I say ‘yes’ to local things. I’ve known Norman Baker for 20 years and I like him as a bloke. I think he’s got hidden depths. He’s very clever, politically, as well. So I’m perfectly happy to do it with him but I’m not going to go anywhere near mainstream politics. I’m going to carry on writing.”
Hack Attack with Nick Davies and Norman Baker MP, Sun 14 Dec 2014, 6pm, St Thomas’s Hall, Cliffe High Street, free but £5 donation requested (redeemable against signed book)
This is an extended version of the article first published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 99 December 2014.