The third annual Woolly Days media personality of the year (after Mark Scott in 2009 and Julian Assange in 2010) is shared between Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and Guardian journalist Nick Davies. Rusbridger and Davies win the 2011 award for their disciplined and determined expose of the insidious tactics of the News International empire in illegally hacking phones for dubious journalistic ends.
The pair’s actions caused the folding of the News of the World and the resignation and charging of several high profile current and former News International execs including David Cameron’s spin doctor Andy Coulson who was forced to resign twice over. It also hastened the end of the Murdoch dynasty as the public furore caused in the wake of the Guardian’s revelations put a cloud over James Murdoch's ability to lead the company. The biggest economic impact was the loss of the money-spinning BSkyB takeover which looked inevitable as recently as a week before the scandal broke.
Rusbridger told the remarkable story of the phone hacking in his 2011 Orwell lecture. In January 2007 News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three royal staff, an offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. News International chair Les Hinton told a 2007 House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport Goodwin acted alone and without their knowledge.
News continued its strenuous denials of a wider conspiracy until 2009 when Davies splashed his Gordon Taylor revelations. Davies revealed Murdoch had paid out over a £1m in legal cases that threatened to reveal the phone hacking. Professional Football Association boss Gordon Taylor was paid £700,000. Davies revealed the suppressed legal cases were linked to the Goodman case.
A News private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was also jailed in January 2007. Mulcaire admitted hacking into the phones of five other targets, including Taylor (the others were Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes, celebrity PR Max Clifford, model Elle MacPherson and football agent Sky Andrew). In 2008 Taylor sued News on the basis that they must have known about it. News submitted documents to the High Court denying keeping any recording or notes of intercepted messages. But Taylor's lawyers demanded detailed police evidence which revealed Mulcaire had provided a recording of Taylor's messages to a News of the World journalist who emailed them to a senior reporter. The evidence also found a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages. The News case immediately collapsed causing the payout.
When the Guardian revealed the story, News and its supporters in blue closed ranks. The News of the World furiously attacked the Guardian while in The Times the police assistant commissioner in charge of the original investigation downplayed the disclosures saying there were a handful of victims of hacking and only a few hundred targeted. According to Rusbridger, the police conducted the quickest review in recent history – a few hours. News International exec Rebekah Brooks (ultimately undone by the scandal) said the Guardian had "deliberately misled the British public".
A week later Rusbridger and Davies appeared before the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport. It was there Davies produced the “For Neville” emails that destroyed News’s case against the Guardian. The emails were for Neville Thurlbeck, Chief Reporter of the News of the World, and they conclusively showed people other than Goodman were aware of the hacking. Yet police commissioner Paul Stephenson told Rusbridger Nick Davies was barking up the wrong tree. In November 2009 the Press Complaints Commission rejected the Guardian’s claims in November 2009, but were forced to change their tune in July 2011 after the Milly Dowler affair came to light.
On 4 July, Davies and Amelia Hill revealed the News of the World illegally targeted missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002 using records stolen from BT’s confidential records. The affair seemed particularly horrific to the public because of the revelation NotW deleted messages from Dowler’s full message bank giving her parents false hope she was alive. The paper made no effort to hide that fact even publishing details of a message in a 2002 article. The Met Police’s QC now says the messages were probably automatically deleted but the damage was already done. Murdoch was forced to personally apologise to Dowler’s parents and his empire started unravelling as allegations each more damaging than the last followed in the Leveson Inquiry.
Nick Davies was honoured for his series of articles with a swag of awards. He was named journalist of the year at the Foreign Press Association Media Awards 2011, won the Frontline Club award for his investigation and also won the FPA print and web news award along with Hill for the Dowler story.
Rusbridger meanwhile used the Orwell lecture to stake out a new future for a troubled industry. He said self regulation was a joke and the PCC had no powers. He said they needed a mediation power which would be cheaper to access than a libel trial and would be a vital input in any court action. Rusbridger also asked deep questions about what the “public interest” means: “It is not only crucial to the sometimes arcane subject of privacy,” he said. “It is crucial to every argument about the future of the press, the public good it delivers and why, in the most testing of economic times, it deserves to survive.” For raising these questions and for relentlessly following the evidence when it seemed they had little to go on, Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies were a breath of fresh air to a deeply troubled media industry, economically and ethically.