At a time when our Parliamentary democracy is under threat, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying, sometimes appear to be the only upholders of our democratic system. This is the first in a series of articles that will profile some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.
Nick Davies is a journalist and documentary maker well known for his campaigns to expose injustice and the misuse of power. He was instrumental in uncovering the appalling abuse happening in children’s homes in North Wales in the 1990s, and, more recently, in exposing the News of the World phone hacking scandal. He has won numerous awards for his work with The Guardian and The Observer, including Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year.
We met in the study of Davies’s house in East Sussex, where he has lived for many years when not travelling (which the virus prevents at the moment). I began by asking him the obvious question – what made him decide to retire from journalism in 2016?
He traces it back to a growing realisation that the power of words to influence, in a world overwhelmed by words, has been weakened. “In July 2011 the phone hacking scandal I’d been working on for two years came to a head with the Milly Dowler story and the whole UK power elite were running around screaming. As events unfolded and the screaming stopped what emerged was that nothing had changed.”
Davies became a reporter in 1976 after graduating from Oxford and working on building sites for a couple of years to fund a trip to South America (of which more later). He was inspired to enter journalism because of the Watergate scandal, “which was two reporters armed only with words, bringing down the most powerful politician in the world, because he was corrupt”. He has built his career on the basic assumption that as a writer you can use words as weapons to create change. It is deeply sad and alarming for the rest of us that he believes this assumption no longer holds. Why? The influence of the Internet, the power of Rupert Murdoch, and the election of Donald Trump.
On the Internet – “The difficulty of giving everyone a voice is that you live in this cacophony of shouting, and if you are a journalist trying to use your words as weapons your story may not get noticed at all because everyone is shouting”.
“It’s very difficult to break through and get heard. Even if you succeed, the public domain in which policy is decided is now so infected with falsehood and unreason that you can’t expect a rational reaction”.
He cites the work of investigative journalists Amelia Gentleman, who brought the Windrush scandal to the attention of the public, and of Carole Cadwalladr, who was one of the first to expose Cambridge Analytica’s malign influence. “In both cases the longer-term impact has been so limited”. Davies fully expects that the US election in November and our own General Election in 2024 will involve the activities of companies like Cambridge Analytica, using the targeted message sending that is so lethal.
On Rupert Murdoch – “He interferes with governments. He has been responsible for overthrowing elected governments time and again. And what’s democracy worth when we have our measly vote every five years and an Australian with an American passport can come wandering in and tell the government what to do? He uses the megaphone of the tabloid press to amplify his message and force-feed the population misinformation.”
On Trump – “It’s not just that he himself runs riot through all of the rules and conventions of democratic society. It’s that other politicians all over the world look at Washington DC and see what he’s getting away with. So he’s spread the political virus. The most startling example of that in the UK was the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle fiasco. The whole country could see that he was lying, and the government said, ‘Never mind, we’ll do what Donald does. We’ll just sit it out and in a week or two everyone will go away and talk about something else.’”
And on the future – “I really don’t know what form of activism works any more. When I graduated I was going to South America to join a freedom-fighting group. But all those groups involved in armed struggle lost. And there’s a real question about whether Extinction Rebellion’s tactics can be successful. Maybe you can do small things, like Marcus Rashford winning on school meals. You can win those little victories. But if you look at structures, I can’t see it.”
And then he says with great poignancy, “Maybe I’m losing my vision.”