This is the story of how a part of British national journalism, by far the most popular part, committed crimes against individuals, against the state and against the oft-repeated reason for journalism’s very existence: that it holds power to account. What is revealed here, in painful, careful detail, is a journalism that held power in contempt – and, together with power, held in contempt people both famed and obscure, dominant and meek. Those whom the tabloids wished to destroy were swept into the maw of a press that devoured them, all the while proclaiming that it was engaged in the most righteous of tasks, that of uncovering hypocrisy and corruption.

Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who led that newspaper’s lonely (at first) revelations of phone hacking at the News of the World, has, in his exhumation of this trove of journalistic ordure, done a colossal service to Britain’s democracy. Hack Attack is a tale of talented, highly paid and ruthless men and women whose actions at the flaring end of popular newspaper journalism have left a great scar on civic life in Britain. That it was so comprehensively illuminated – by Davies and his colleagues, then by the inquiry conducted by Sir Brian Leveson – is a reassuring signal that great vices can suffer great falls.

Their main trade was in sexual scandal, and it was dependable: at one time, writes Davies, they had collected files on secret affairs being conducted by two senior Metropolitan Police officers, the director of public prosecutions and the attorney-general. From the 1990s, the NotW used the technique of hacking into mobile phone messages – simple enough, once you had the number and the pin code. Ironically, this made the stories more accurate: the reporters were plugged in to the real stuff.

The engine of mud needed engineers: those here would have delighted Charles Dickens. There was Alex Marunchak, a former executive editor of the NotW, whom Davies believes was the creator of the darkest arts at the paper, though he was not charged with any crime; Glenn Mulcaire, ace hacker, who took a six-figure income from the NotW for his services; Andy Coulson, editor of the paper until a “no blame” resign­ation, whereupon he was taken into government as head of communications by a prime minister, David Cameron, who was amply warned that his new hire was toxic; and Rebekah Brooks, who rose from secretary to chief executive of News International via the editors’ chairs of the NotW and the Sun, and who charmed a generation of political leaders. On trial, with others, Brooks was acquitted of charges of perverting the course of justice; Coulson was given 18 months for conspiracy to intercept voicemails and faces further charges; while a few more who worked at the NotW were given shortish jail sentences.

Above them all was Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp, entering his eighties while this little cloud over the UK, no bigger than a man’s hand, became a storm. He is presented by Davies as a man with extraordinary gifts of dissimulation, wholly possessed by the company in whose interests he closed down the NotW in 2011, the sacrifice a vain attempt to keep alive his bid to secure full ownership of the hugely profitable BSkyB.

The three prime ministers in office just before and during the hacking revelations – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – are drawn well, if with some unwarranted assumptions: Blair was not stopped from joining the euro by Murdoch but by his chancellor and successor. Blair decided that Murdoch could not be opposed, and thus courted but did not obey him except in small things and in rhetoric. Brown, more tortured, did much the same (they shared a distrust, rightly as it turned out, of the euro). Cameron went much the furthest, enfolding Brooks into his set in Oxfordshire in addition to hiring Coulson, her former colleague and lover.

After two years of lofty dismissal of Davies’ and others’ reporting, the NotW defence fell apart, ironically, over a story that was partly mistaken – that the paper had hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murdered in 2002, and deleted some messages. The phone was hacked but the messages were not deleted. Public horror was roused: Cameron apologised for his own and his predecessors’ obeisance to Murdoch and, pressed hard by the new Labour leader Ed Miliband in one of his finer hours, announced an inquiry.

The golden times for the tabloids are over. They can still cause damage to politicians, still break public figures’ marriages and wound careers. But more important than any efforts to erect a regulatory mechanism is the blossoming of journalism on the internet. The medium offers the means to break down the elements of the tabloid package – scandal, gossip, sex, sport, polemic – and do each one more fully, more quickly, more interactively. It is destroying the tabloids’ business model and creating a vast space in which journalists and citizens together can be more brilliant, and more scabrous, than ever before.

Davies makes only one large mistake: to end the book with a rant on neo­liberalism. It’s a subject too important for an epilogue of a few pages; it hasn’t featured much in the preceding narrative; and it’s hard to agree that it is triumphing in a country, the UK, with a mixed and quite regulated economy whose most popular institutions are the thoroughly socialised NHS and the publicly owned BBC – which, to be sure, the Murdoch papers paint as monsters. Otherwise, Hack Attack is the book of a very bold reporter about a passage of arms that he won, to our great benefit.

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, by Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, RRP£20/ Faber & Faber, RRP$27, 448 pages

John Lloyd is a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford

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