Murdoch’s Scandal Review: “I Walked Into A John Grisham Novel”

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Airing tonight on PBS UK is Frontline’s documentary Murdoch’s Scandal. This comes mere days after BBC’s Panorama revealed new hacking allegations against News Corp connected to Canal Plus and ITV Digital, which elicited a strong rebuke from News Corp.

The documentary chronicles the phone hacking scandal and, as such, is one I was more than a little dubious about reviewing, for a variety of reasons. But having now seen the programme in its entirety, I cannot recommend it enough.

For those who haven’t followed the blow-by-blow of the phone hacking scandal, Murdoch’s Scandal is something you should sit down to watch, if only to get a clear picture of what has occured and how. For those who have followed the scandal, I urge you to watch the programme just so you can fully appreciate how the story was broken open by only a handful of people and the nature of the relationships between News International and the police and politicians.

In their usual fashion, Frontline takes as balanced an approach as is possible, given that over 30 employees of News Corp (including Rupert Murdoch himself) declined to be interviewed. We are exposed to Murdoch’s rise to success, from buying the News of the World, The Sun, The Times and the Sunday Times, to his influence over politicians and almost every general election since the 1970’s. We are also told how the News of the World is built on salacious stories and the need to have a certain number of big stories each year.

With that background, Murdoch’s Scandal launches into a telling of the events that brings us to today. Starting with News of the World’s story on Prince William’s injured knee, which led to a police investigation revealing that Royal correspondent Clive Goodman and Private Investigator Glenn Mulcaire had hacked the phones of aides to the Prince. From there, with both men sent to jail, the resignation of Andy Coulson and News International’s assertion that this was the case of one rogue reporter, the Metropolitan Police Service closes their investigation.

It is at this stage that the documentary presents its real gems of information. Starting with how Gordon Taylor’s lawsuit against News International started the ball rolling on this huge story. Taylor’s lawyer, Mark Lewis, is interviewed on-screen and he reveals how he had knowledge that News International’s line of “one rogue reporter” was a lie, as he had obtained an email from the police investigation in which a News of the World employee transcribed 35 hacked messages (said email has gone on to be know as the “Neville email”). Taylor then tells of how he knew there was a lot more to the story when News International offered a settlement of £700 000, when the typical award for damages in a privacy case ranged from £3-10, 000.

We are then exposed to how the Guardian broke the story of the settlement and claimed that there were possibly thousands of victims, News International’s defensive reaction and how this led to Guardian reporter Nick Davies’ source allowing him to reveal the Neville email to a Parliamentary subcommittee.

From then on the investigation cools off and post 2009 there is little interest until, after Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is told not to pursue the story by then Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, the New York Times agrees to assist The Guardian with their investigation and they dig up a number of sources, which leads to the revelation that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. Further details such as the resignation of Andy Coulson from Number 10, the launch of a new police investigation, News Corp’s failed BSKYB bid and the shuttering of the News of the World then follow

Murdoch’s Scandal is a documentary that stands out, because as someone who closely followed this scandal, even I learnt things from it. It is staggering to think that but for one lawsuit, the tenacity of Labour MP Tom Watson and The Guardian details of this would never have come to light. It is also telling of how the public views The Guardian; while they were writing of the hacking scandal few took note. But as soon as the New York Times entered the fray, everyone woke up and, as stated by Alan Rusbridger, “people thought ‘Okay, this is not just a lone obsession of The Guardian.’ Everything The Guardian wrote has been fact checked by the New York Times.”

But perhaps the one statement that sums up the entire scandal comes from lawyer Mark Lewis: “Two or so years ago, I walked into a John Grisham novel.” And that’s a fair point, one lawyer pursuing a lawsuit on behalf of his client uncovers evidence that leads to a number of articles in The Guardian and the New York Times, the resignations of a government official and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, the revelation of News Internationals close relationships in both law enforcement and political circles.

Murdoch’s Scandal is another world-class entry in the Frontline series of documentaries and, while it is unlikely to receive a stirring response from News Corp as BBC’s Panorama investigation did, it presents the facts as fully as possible. So put down that Grisham novel and watch the real thing tonight at 9pm on PBS UK.