Guardian deputy editor: ‘It got pretty lonely’ covering News International scandal

Ian Katz, deputy editor of The Guardian, says covering The News of the World scandal was a lonely undertaking until last week. The Guardian has covered the scandal for two years, but the scandal didn’t gain widespread attention until reporter Nick Davies broke the Milly Dowler hacking story last Monday.

“What happened right at the beginning was there was a little ripple of coverage. But then very quickly the rest of the press (there were a couple of exceptions, such as The Independent and the Financial Times) just dropped it,” Katz told me. “On any story, that can be a very lonely place to be when you keep throwing these pebbles in the pond and you don’t see the ripples of your rivals following up.”

Despite repeated accusations that The Guardian had gotten it all wrong, the paper continued to aggressively cover and believe in the story. Now, many are applauding the paper for its tenacity.

I talked with Katz via phone and email to find out more about the paper’s coverage, the journalistic skills reporters needed to cover this story, and the challenges they faced along the way. Here is our edited exchange.

Mallary Tenore: What has your role been in The Guardian’s coverage of The News of the World scandal?

Ian Katz

Ian Katz: During the initial period of the story I ran our Monday-Friday paper, for the last year or so I have been deputy editor in charge of our news coverage, digital and print. Along with our editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, who has had a very hands-on role in this story, I have been the main editor working with Nick Davies and the rest of our team on the story.

When did The Guardian first start reporting on the News of the World scandal? When the news first broke, how many reporters were on the story? How many reporters are dedicated to the story now?

We broke the story in July 2009 with this Nick Davies piece. Nick was the only reporter working on it and it was entirely his baby. We now have around half a dozen reporters who are consistently involved in the story, looking at aspects from the police to News International or the politics, with as many as a dozen or so writing on the big days during the last week.

Let’s talk about the significance of this story. Why did The Guardian think it was so important to cover, even when others said it wasn’t?

This is a story of two halves in a way. There was the original story of journalistic malpractice, and that alone was pretty shocking. But that really pales next to the scale of the coverup. The really great scandal was in the coverup.

Once we were convinced that the police in particular had done their best to make the problem go away, rather than genuinely investigating it, you felt there was a really important story about the abuse of power through a whole range of different institutions. I absolutely think this is a parable about what happens when too much power is concentrated in the hands of one person in society. Institutions then get contaminated.

Chairman of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch, center right, and his son James Murdoch, center left, chief executive of News Corporation Europe and Asia face the media as they arrive at his residence in central London, Sunday, July 10, 2011. (Sang Tan/AP)

So much power was concentrated in the hands of Rupert Murdoch. So many institutions quailed — the police, the press regulators, large chunks of the political class — because they couldn’t contemplate taking on the scale of the Murdoch operation.

What elements make this story so compelling?

A few of the ingredients that make it so compelling:

  • A remarkable cast of characters that ranges from sleazy private detectives to an all-powerful octogenarian billionaire, the country’s most high-profile policeman, a tabloid empress, a host of the country’s most important politicians and a sprinkling of celebrities.
  • The fact that the scandal has engulfed almost every institution in the land: the media, the police, the press regulator, No 10 Downing St., even the palace.
  • Disclosures of such repugnant behavior — such as the hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, or 7/7 victim’s families — that the whole country was united by a visceral wave of disgust.
  • The Watergate-like way in which the villains kept adding layer upon layer of coverup and in so doing amplified the original sin countless times.

What challenges have you/the paper run into while covering this story, and what have you learned from them?

Well, most conspicuously the determination of just about everyone to shut it down: News International, the police, the press regulator and plenty of politicians. Here’s the letter Rebekah Brooks wrote to MPs immediately after Nick’s first story. She claimed we were “substantially and likely deliberately” misleading the public. For the next two years denial was heaped upon denial. Here’s a (by no means complete) list of them.

With most other media ignoring the story, with the honorable exceptions of the Independent, the BBC and, particularly latterly the Financial Times, and in the face of police insistence that there was no reason to open a new inquiry, it was easy for The Guardian’s reporting to be caricatured as obsessive and politically motivated.

I’d mention two other things: one was the truly Olympic mendacity of News International, whose executives told fibs at just about every turn. The other was the fear that Murdoch once inspired, until about last Tuesday, in just about every corner of British life. That meant witnesses who might otherwise have gone on the record wouldn’t and officials who should have acted on our disclosures found ways not to.

What journalistic skills have been most important when covering this story?

I think the single most important attribute has been Nick Davies’ tenacity because I think most reporters would have faded after the first few weeks or first few months.

I think a lot of reporters would have wilted after weeks and months of denials and police coming out and saying there’s no evidence here, and huge corporations like News Corp. coming out and saying this is emphatically wrong. The really remarkable thing is Nick kept going.

His tenacity was the important thing, and the next most
important thing was The Guardian’s willingness to be slightly obsessive about it — to keep putting it on the front page even after people were beginning to regard the story as a tribal obsession. That commitment to staying with a story and giving it space were key.

It got pretty lonely because what happened right at the beginning was there was a little ripple of coverage. But then very quickly the rest of the press (there were a couple of exceptions, such as The Independent and the Financial Times) just dropped it. On any story, that can be a very lonely place to be when you keep throwing these pebbles in the pond and you don’t see the ripples of your rivals following up. I suppose there is a sort of confidence needed to go your own way.

Do you think the paper would have covered the story as thoroughly had the News of the World not been a competitor?

I hope so. Look at David Leigh‘s years-long pursuit of British Aerospace; The Guardian has a rather honorable record of dogged pursuits of organizations with whom we have no commercial rivalry.

What, if anything, has surprised you about the coverage of this scandal? (Either The Guardian’s coverage or the coverage in general.)

Nick Davies routinely called or emailed with new evidence. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, he would call and tell you Milly Dowler had been hacked. Each layer of either the subterfuge, the coverup, or the depth to which the journalists at the beginning had gone to, was surprising.

In terms of being surprised about coverage elsewhere, I was surprised at the start by how quickly other serious newspapers like The Times, for instance, abandoned the story. I think it’s a pretty inglorious chapter in the history of The Times where they simply more or less stopped covering the story because it was too tricky, too close to home. They subsequently started covering it about a year ago. But there was six months or a year in which their coverage was virtually invisible.

They ran an editorial the other day in which they said this was the first time they’ve done any editorial on the subject. … They said their news coverage has always been completely straight. It may have been straight, but it’s been largely absent.

The Guardian recently announced that it would be adopting a digital-first strategy. In what ways has The Guardian’s coverage of the News of the World scandal been digital-first?

We start each day thinking about what the stories are … and it’s entirely with the website rather than paper in mind. If you look at the way we handle stories, we have been breaking stories on the site at lunchtime, 3:00, 4:00 and not just at the end of the day.

Historically, newspapers during a big running story like this have hoarded their material for their print edition but we have published as and when stories are ready, as well as providing rolling coverage of developments in a live blog. That’s meant on some days we’ve published four or five stories that might have led the paper in old money before we send the first edition — and frequently that’s meant our print rivals have been able to catch up with our stories for the following day’s edition.

We’ve also used multimedia quite interestingly, I think, for instance to remind people of News International’s long record of denials, and we’ve been doing some interesting work which should be live in the next day or so which will allow us to map how the story is playing out across the Twittersphere.

Has The Guardian’s online traffic risen in the past week?

I would say it’s in the order of 10-15 percent. Well in excess of 3 million uniques per day.

Any other takeaways that you think journalists would benefit from hearing?

I think the overwhelming takeaway is stick with it. When you think a story is important, stick with it even if the rest of the media doesn’t follow your lead — even if institutions stand up in front of you and say there’s nothing to see here. … Sometimes the most credulity defying conspiracy theories are true.

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  • http://twitter.com/divakarssathya divakar s natarajan

    Lonely ? The man doesn’t know what he is talking about. .Mad Dogs and theGuardian UK http://t.co/a2wAJna

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Nikki. The link is working for me. Here it is directly, see if that works: http://journ.us/p6lK5z

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Nikki. The link is working for me. Here it is directly, see if that works: http://journ.us/p6lK5z

  • http://twitter.com/Spandavia nikki turner

    Well done the Guardian. By the way, your link to NIs long list of denials does not work. I would particularly like to see it to compare to a similar, if not worse scenario,