It was made for Hollywood, this story, with heroic journalists challenging their corrupt peers and government figures, both in the name of freedom. A good story, even though at the end, nothing much really changed, apart from a handful of people going briefly to jail. And so it was not entirely surprising to find disclosed in the Hollywood Reporter that George Clooney had signed a deal to direct a film version of Guardian reporter Nick Davies’s Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch.
By now, the tale is familiar. Reporters and private eyes working for the British tabloid News of the World, one among many of Murdoch’s News Corporation entities in the United Kingdom, hacked into private persons’ phone messages; they “blagged” phone companies and other service providers out of private information about their clients; they intimidated politicians to the point of “whitemail” (if not downright blackmail) about their personal affairs; they pushed ideological and corporate objectives in return for supportive press coverage; they bribed police informers and encouraged a culture of corruption in various halls of government, including Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police, and the regulatory agency charged with monitoring the news media.
As a fan of political thrillers, and of George Clooney too, I am eagerly anticipating this movie, and already going over in my head how different scenes could be constructed for it, not to mention guessing what actors will play what roles. (I am pulling for Clive Owen as the disgraced editor Andy Coulson, and Julianne Moore, if she can do a proper English accent, as not-quite-so-disgraced editor Rebekah Brooks). But as a culture critic I have a larger question to ask. What kind of story will this movie tell? I have read the whole of Hack Attack, which is 448 pages long, and which, in trying to be thorough and accurate, dwells on a number of details which slow down the action and impede its narrative drive. In two hours or less, however, the movie version is going to have to go for a big, mythic, emotional impact. It is going to have to delineate, with sound and sight as well as language, one of the main things, according to Nick Davies and George Clooney, that is rotten at the core of our world.
The story Hack Attack tells is a lot like the story of Watergate told by All the President’s Men, with Nick Davies playing the part of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward rolled into one (and even a character code-named Mr. Apollo playing the part of Deep Throat). Both are stories about a cover-up, and about the ultimate victory of the press and the truth over government officials and their lies. The chief difference, though, is that in Hack Attack the news media are both hero and villain.
Reporters for the Guardian, and eventually the New York Times, the BBC, and a government commission, gradually uncovered a vast conspiracy in the British media–News of the World was not alone in this, although only News of the World employees were convicted of any crimes–to invade the privacy of individuals ranging from the Royal Family to the common families of two ten-year-old girls who had been abducted and murdered. The conspiracy involved using this information for ulterior commercial and political purposes, and then obstructing justice. But though it is clear that members of the British government and civil service came to be involved in the criminal affairs of the media company, few actually suffered for it; nor did the party allied with the company, the Tories, suffer in political popularity.
The right to privacy, like other “rights” in the tradition of written constitutions that include bills of rights, is more firmly embedded in American and European law than it is in the British; so too is freedom of speech. It took a series of trials and a lengthy government hearing to sort matters out. Eventually seven News of the World representatives were found guilty and sentenced; others are still subject to judicial review, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation suffered a huge blow when, in response to the scandal, it was forced to withdraw its bid to buy out the British cable giant BskyB and become the biggest media monopoly in the United Kingdom.
But what has really changed? In the aftermath of the scandal, the British are now closer to having figured out how to regulate the press than they were before. But they are no closer to establishing genuine freedom of speech, due to a punitive set of libel laws and procedural obstacles to the exercise of speech, which paradoxically encourage media misconduct (when false or malicious allegations are easy to sue, the allegations better be true, however unseemly the evidence or the way the evidence was found). Nor are they any closer to having established a constitutional right to privacy.
Even worse, the British have done nothing to curb the power of big business to manipulate politics and politicians, or to restrain an international culture of surveillance–sponsored by institutions ranging from the NSA and Scotland Yard to Google and The Sun–which still gives businesses and government the opportunity to monitor the daily lives of citizens without their knowledge or consent, and use that information for corporate advantage. As Davies puts it in his book:
All of this exposure and the brief humbling of Rupert Murdoch easily seduced us into thinking that we had won a great victory, that truth had caught up with power. Very soon, however, as attention faded and the scandal slipped into the past, the elite simply took back their power, as if we had never challenged it…. For a while, we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite.
At the hands of the henchmen of this very same “elite,” a number of innocent citizens have certainly suffered, George Clooney included. Clooney has frequently and publicly objected to the tabloids’ invasion of his privacy, and to their fabricating false rumors about him. But my guess is that Clooney knows, along with Davies, that something larger has long been at stake: not just the power of the press to do ill as well as good, but also the power of “the elite” to promote the abuses of the press and the culture of surveillance, influence-buying, reputation-smearing, vindictive voyeurism, and full-on cynicism that goes along with it. Hack Attack is a story not only of success, but also of failure.
We’ve seen this before. After Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation, the end result was…a government led by Gerald Ford, and, after the disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter, the ascendance of Ronald Reagan and neo-conservatism. When an investigation of this kind gathers steam, and public officials seem to be on the verge of being exposed for utterly corrupt and obnoxious behavior, it feels to the opposition as if a whole system is being unmasked for what it is, and as if a whole condition for oppressive chicanery is about to be brought down. When wrongdoers are shamed and convicted or forced to resign, it feels like liberation. The wicked witch is dead. But then the witch arises again, in new garb, or even in the same garb as before. After Watergate cometh Iran-Contra. After the cynical big lie comes more cynical big lies.
Now we have the story of Nick Davies, to be rendered by Clooney and his associates. I have the feeling that the film is going to involve a very moving account of one man’s battle against faceless and not-so-faceless authorities. But I also have the feeling that this time the story is going to end, in the film just as it does in the book, not as a comedy but as a tragedy. News of the World has been shut down, and News Corporation has been split into two, with the future of many of its print operations uncertain. But it still gives us Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Sun and a new paper, the Sun on Sunday, which has taken over where News of the World left off (not to mention its numerous holdings in Australia and elsewhere). It still owns a big portion of the worldwide industrial media complex. Business interests like News Corporation still have an unseemly and antidemocratic hold over political and economic policy. They still have the will to debase not only our common intelligence, but also our common imagination.
Hack Attack is one of the greatest stories told in the West in the twenty-first century so far. It is one of the most heroic. And it is one of the saddest. People may well end up walking out of the movie theater with tears in their eyes.