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On the Media: The Guardian got the job done

Newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger and reporter Nick Davies doggedly pursued the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked Rupert Murdoch's empire and the British government.

August 03, 2011|James Rainey
  • 'LONELY MOMENTS': Editor Alan Rusbridger.
'LONELY MOMENTS': Editor Alan Rusbridger. (Associated Press )

Alan Rusbridger, editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper, would never let one of his writers get away with the cliche, but when the history of the Guardian is written it really wouldn't be much of a stretch to say these have been the best of times and....

Let's not go down that over-worn path, but instead affirm that Rusbridger and a dogged reporter named Nick Davies, along with a rock-solid supporting cast, have helped prove that the Guardian deserves to be mentioned in the top rank of the world's media.

They get credit for delivering the biggest media story in years, showing how London's News of the World tabloid illegally hacked the phones of celebrities, athletes, royals and politicians. The stories not only revealed the corrupt culture at the highest levels of Rupert Murdoch's media empire but also exposed illegal payoffs to police and complicity by politicians most interested in protecting their own skins. The Guardian got the job done as most other British papers sniffed, or looked away.

The paper rattled the status quo even as it endured the same sort of financial shock waves that have battered the rest of the newspaper industry. The paper's parent company, Guardian News and Media, announced this week it lost $70 million in the most recent 12-month period. The nonprofit Scott Trust, which supports the Guardian, is running out of money. Layoffs are on the way.

The Guardian, generally pro-Labour Party and antiwar in opinion space, has one of the top media sites in Britain and is trying to find a way to profit from its online operations, which are also popular in the U.S. But the company has been unable to replace lost print advertising revenue and has so far been unwilling to experiment with the kind of online "pay wall" imposed by the New York Times and Murdoch's London Times.

So it's not much of a stretch to suggest the story of the Guardian has a novelistic, even Dickensian, magnitude. With 10 official inquiries launched, multiple lawsuits trickling through the courts, hundreds of phone-tap victims still to be notified and a prime minister significantly wounded, the tale has only begun to unfurl.

There is no solid evidence, yet, of similar skulduggery on this side of the Atlantic. But one can't help but wonder. Reporter Davies arrived in New York this week and plans to continue to Los Angeles Friday to, as he told me, "see whether there is a U.S. end to this story."

"I strongly suspect that Britain is not the only place where news organizations have engaged in illegal activity," Davies said via email. "The financial problems in newsrooms are so great that it is tempting … to cut corners.… Having said that, I have no hard evidence to support that suspicion."

While Davies has gotten some overdue acclaim of late, he and his colleagues were treated as thuggish country cousins when they began to poke around the story — work that began when he told his editor he had found that James Murdoch, son of the media titan, had made a more than $1-million deal to cover up criminal behavior within the company.

Davies broke his first big story in July 2009. A few days later, he spoke before a special parliamentary committee, with ample evidence disproving the Murdochs' contention that the scandal involved just one "bad apple" reporter. Most of the British media greeted the revelations with pronounced silence. Then the police announced that their inquiry had concluded there was nothing much to it. In a bit of understatement, editor Rusbridger now recalls: "It was really quite odd."

"News International [the main U.K. subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp.] felt they had this kind of immunity," Rusbridger, 57, said in a phone interview. "When you have a very big organization that thinks it's untouchable, you have the potential for a serious problem."

A root of much of the trouble in the British tabloids may have been the ascension of editors who began their careers covering celebrities, Rusbridger believes. The scribes had an anything-goes, "we made them, so we can break them" attitude toward their work — an ethic they carried with them when they were promoted to run hard news coverage.

Even as Davies kept pounding away at News International, "there were some quite lonely moments, when you realized no one else was going to touch this story," said his editor, who has run the paper since 1995.

To keep the story going, the editor last year took an extraordinary step — inviting reporters from the New York Times to see what they could find. Davies briefed a group of Times reporters and, months later, their expose created "a second wind" for the scandal. The story in the Times' Sunday magazine said that former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson, far from being ignorant of hacking, as he claimed, had encouraged reporters to intercept luminaries' voice-mail messages.

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