Allegations of phone hacking and bribery brought down Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World. Criminal and parliamentary investigations are now under way in the U.K., and dozens of journalists and top executives from Murdoch's paper have been arrested.
Scotland Yard has been investigating the scandal, but several police officials from that iconic institution have also been implicated; they're accused of accepting bribes from reporters at Murdoch's papers.
"A number of them went to work for Murdoch's paper afterward — these are higher-level officials — and we don't know what other things went on," says PBS Frontline correspondent Lowell Bergman. "We have plenty of rumors, lots of stories — but for sure, the police themselves have stood up and said that at The Sun, one of Murdoch's papers, there was a 'culture of corruption.'"
Murdoch's Scandal, Bergman's Frontline documentary, which airs March 27 on PBS stations, details how the story broke. It also profiles the people who uncovered information about the scandal — and the price they paid for trying to bring it to light.
Mark Lewis is the lawyer for more than 80 alleged phone-hacking victims. Labour MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant questioned Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, an executive and former newspaper editor at Murdoch's News International umbrella corporation, during parliamentary hearings. And Nick Davies is the reporter for The Guardian, the paper that originally broke the phone-hacking story. Some of them were put under surveillance by private investigators hired by News International. Others were intimidated, says Bergman, through a process called "monstering," in which Murdoch's papers singled out individuals and attacked their character on a daily basis.
"[Chris Bryant] tells the story that at some time [after questioning Brooks in Parliament in 2003] he runs into her at a party, and she starts to say unkind things to him, that she knows that he's gay," says Bergman. "Then soon after, he gets 'monstered' by the tabloids, where they single out an individual and go after him day after day.
"They began to show pictures of him in his underwear — any pictures they could find of him being somewhat compromising — talking about him being a member of Parliament, being gay, etc. And leaning on him, and, he thought for a while, endangering his political career."
Bryant was reelected and is still pursuing the investigation, says Bergman.
"I think the most important part of all of this was that there was no police investigation after a public admission [by Brooks in 2003] that '[The paper] pays the police.' We know from News Corporation, and its answers to various questions back in New York, they did not launch any investigation to find out what was going on inside. And when we asked a veteran editor about it — about whether or not he knew that his paper paid the police — he said no one ever told him."
Public statements given by Scotland Yard indicate that people inside the metropolitan police were being paid off, some of them in excess of six figures, says Bergman.
"They said there was a culture of corruption inside the paper," he says.
A former reporter for one of Murdoch's tabloids told Bergman that journalists at The Sun and News of the World were pressured to file big stories multiple times a year, leading to a culture where rules were broken.
"But it's our understanding, both from the public record and testimony that's taken place in a public inquiry, that bribery by the Murdoch tabloids was endemic for decades," says Bergman. "This was not a practice that emerged in the early 1990s, especially as it relates to the police."
Bergman says he's not shocked that people were paying off the police — or that the police were accepting bribes from journalists.
"What shocked me was how this was all a very small group of people who were all playing in the same game in London, and the scale of it — the intimacy of it, how close they were — and the fact that Parliament didn't have the power or will to get to the bottom of it," he says. "And that it was, in the end, a Manchester lawyer, a reporter for The Guardian, and a few members of Parliament that allowed this to come out."
On News of the World's use of private investigators, who then bribed people who knew how to hack into voicemails
"It was pretty widespread practice in various news organizations, not only to pay for information, but to use private investigators. On the surface, using private investigators is done. It's done in this country as well. But you stay within certain rules. You keep people, if you will, on a narrow focus about what they can do and what they can't do when you hire people on the outside. But in Britain apparently and in the heat of the tabloid industry there, many people say fueled by Murdoch, ... this became standard practice."
On what happened to Mark Lewis, the lawyer who represented more than 80 phone-hacking victims, after he approached News International about possible phone hacking
"He and a woman who he was going out with and worked with were put under surveillance, as was his ex-wife and child by a private investigator hired by News International. It isn't that they just go out and hire private investigators. We now know that some of these private investigators worked in the newsroom. Or were told, 'Become journalists. Join the journalism union.' They were integrating these investigators into their newsroom operations. These surveillances were ordered. In fact, James Murdoch has now publicly apologized to Mr. Lewis and Tom Watson, a member of Parliament, for putting them under surveillance."
On the silence of News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch
"I was working at The New York Times during the Jayson Blair episode. At The New York Times, the paper officially went on an obsession of telling the audience everything it knew about what had gone on inside The New York Times, to get honest with its readers and with its audience. This is the News Corporation, that's its title. It does own some real legitimate news organizations, like The Wall Street Journal. It owns a television news operation on cable that seems unfettered in what it is willing to talk about — over the top, sometimes. I think it is even proud of that. And it owns reputable newspapers in Britain, as well as these tabloids — and no one will talk? Across the board, silence. I even went to the extent of writing letters — personal letters — to two dozen people inside the organization after trying to talk to people on the phone, and the only response was a letter from Rupert Murdoch himself. It was a very short note, saying he was unable to talk about this at this time. Everyone else has been silent except for The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and I've tried them as well. They've written editorials about it, complaining about some of the coverage."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new "Frontline" documentary "Murdoch's Scandal" tries to answer the question: How did Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Fox Network, the Fox News Channel, the movie studio, the Wall Street Journal and a worldwide media empire come to be hounded by the press investigating dirty dealings at Murdoch's British tabloids?
Journalists from those tabloids, The News of the World and The Sun, area alleged to have hacked into voicemail messages of the people they were writing about and bribed the police for information. Parliament, Scotland Yard and the FBI are conducting investigations.
Dozens of the papers' journalists and executives have been arrested and questioned in England. The "Frontline" documentary, which airs this Tuesday, tells the story of how the scandal broke and profiles the people who stuck their necks out to uncover information about these dirty dealings, knowing the tabloids would go after them in an attempt to scare and silence them.
My guest is the reporter for this documentary, Lowell Bergman. He's a "Frontline" producer and correspondent and is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he heads the investigative reporting program. He's a former director of investigative reporting at ABC News and was a longtime producer for "60 Minutes."
Lowell Bergman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with just an overview of the types of crimes alleged here. Go through the list of crimes.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, the crimes are phone hacking, which really means breaking into people's voicemails by getting the codes or figuring out the codes - listening in, eavesdropping; bribery, and in this case bribery of public officials primarily, police officers, members of the armed forces, and apparently someone in the Health Department has been mentioned; computer hacking, meaning breaking into your emails or computer messages.
And the British police have three separate inquiries going on at the moment, on those three separate areas and have arrested over 40 people. At the same time, this investigation is being monitored by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States, for a number of reasons - one of which is that it's illegal for a U.S. company to bribe officials in another country for profit.
GROSS: So, you know, the police, Scotland Yard, is one of the groups investigating the scandal, but of course the police are also implicated in the scandal, because some members of the police accepted - allegedly accepted bribes from reporters at Murdoch's paper for information.
BERGMAN: Some of them accepted bribes. A number of them went to work for Murdoch's papers afterward. These are higher-level officials. And we don't know what other things went on. We have plenty of rumors, lots of stories, but for sure, the police themselves have stood up and said there was - the Sun, for instance, one of the newspapers, a culture of corruption.
GROSS: And in terms of the phone hacking scandal, I mean, we're talking about celebrities, victims of terrorist attacks, members of their families, members of parliament, the royals. It, kind of, touches many different levels.
BERGMAN: And individual but sensational crimes, like the Milly Dowler disappearance that turned out to be a murder. But in other crimes like that that became celebrity crimes that people focused on, involving ordinary people.
GROSS: One of the things, you know, I learned from your "Frontline" documentary is one of the benefits for reporters of hacking into phone messages, was that they not only got the information on the voicemails, but then they couldn't be sued because the information was true. And the person whose voicemail was hacked, didn't necessarily know - I mean, they probably didn't know their voicemail was hacked, but they knew that the information was true, so they couldn't sue on the grounds that it wasn't true - because it was true.
BERGMAN: Right, and truth in Britain, as in the United States, in a libel proceeding, is the ultimate defense. You can't be sued for reporting the truth. I must say, though, that the other part of the phone hacking story is that it's not always true what you think you hear when you overhear someone.
And that led, in some ways, to the unraveling of all of this.
GROSS: What do you mean?
BERGMAN: Well, in - back five years ago, when the - six years ago, when the police were investigating a complaint from Buckingham Palace that someone had been listening into voicemail messages related to a prince, the prince, prince's knee injury...
GROSS: Prince William.
BERGMAN: Prince William's knee injury, they said, and they notified, apparently, seven individuals or eight individuals overall, that their phones had been hacked, in some way had been accessed. One of those individuals was a man named Gordon Taylor, and he is, if you will, the head of a football, soccer organization in Manchester in England, and he was notified.
No article was ever published, but he was notified that they had hacked into his phone. And what they had hacked into was a message from a woman saying you were great yesterday. And they interpreted that apparently to mean that he had been having sex with this woman, 'cause she was married woman.
Actually, her husband had just died, was the truth, they hadn't bothered to check that yet. And he had come, Mr. Taylor, and delivered the eulogy. So they were working a story that he had just had sex with this recently widowed woman, and they didn't run the story in the end, but that was the message they got, and they thought they had a story.
GROSS: Well, in terms of what you hear when you hack into a voicemail message isn't necessarily the truth, the whole Prince William story is like that, too, because Prince William had left a voicemail message saying that he hurt his knee, but the knee cleared up really quickly. So his knee wasn't really hurt. And that's how the royals figured out, for sure, that their voicemails were being hacked, because the only way you'd know about this was through a voicemail, if you'd hacked into the voicemail message. Do I have that right?
BERGMAN: Yes, exactly. And, you know, as we point out, the fact of hacking into phones was pretty well-known, at least in the journalism community. The difference here, was the complaint was leveled from Buckingham Palace.
GROSS: Which is obviously a pretty big deal.
BERGMAN: In England.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So one of the breakthrough's in Murdoch's scandal came when one of the members of parliament, Chris Bryant, asked some tough questions at a parliamentary hearing in 2003. The hearing was about media intrusion into privacy. And he was questioning Rebekah Brooks, who was then the editor of The Sun, one of the tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch. And he was asking her if the paper ever paid the police for information. And what did she say?
BERGMAN: And she said, all the time and a couple of more words, before there was a realization, what did I say? And then Andy Coulson, who was the editor at the time of News of the World, the Sunday paper, comes in and says: But we only do it when it's legal.
And, you know, what was surprising to me about all this, when I really got involved in trying to report this story out, remember now - that's 2003. Can you imagine, in the United States, that an editor of a newspaper would be before a legislative committee of any kind - federal, state or so on - and would admit to paying the police, what the reaction would be?
Yet somehow this happened in Britain in 2003, it was recorded on videotape, it was available to anyone who wanted it, and there was no follow-up.
GROSS: It's not like it's legal to pay the police for information, if you're a journalist in England: It's not.
BERGMAN: It's not anywhere to bribe public officials. That's illegal everywhere. And further, it seemed to point out the deeper we got into this that the culture behind all this - for instance now there's been public testimony by the head of the Crimewriters Association in England - the veteran journalist, who went before this public inquiry in Britain and said that back in the early 1980s, he went to work for News of the World, recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch, and was told as a crimewriter covering the police, he should pay the police.
He went further and said I refused to do that, it was against my ethics. This gentleman's very close to police officers, in fact, teaches police officers at an academy, as well as being a journalist, and he said I insisted on not paying them. They keep telling me I have to pay them. His editor tells him, he testifies, that we have a fund for paying the police, why aren't you using it to get scoops. And eventually this leads to him leaving the newspaper and going to another paper, where he says they didn't believe in paying the police.
So this had been going on for a very long time.
GROSS: So this statement by the editor Rebekah Brooks of, like, oh, yeah, we pay the police all the time, that's in 2003, and the story is just kind of dropped, as you say. Why do you think no one in England picked up the story then? Why didn't the newspapers run with it? They love scandals.
BERGMAN: But not about themselves. And I think one of the aspects of all of this is that - and as it's turning out over time - is that many people knew what was going on. It was pretty widespread practices in various news organizations, not only to pay for information, to use private investigators.
And by the way, on the surface, using a private investigator is done, it's done in this country, as well, but you stay within certain rules. You stay - you keep people, if you will, on a certain narrow focus about what they can do and what they can't do when you hire people, for instance, on the outside. But in Britain apparently, and in the heat of the tabloid industry there, many people say fueled by Murdoch, made a little bit over the top by Murdoch, even more so than it was before, this became standard practice.
GROSS: And one of the things that the private investigators did was hack into the voicemails, because they knew how to do that – or, I think, your documentary says they knew how to bribe the people who did know how to do it.
BERGMAN: Well, there are people, for instance, in this country as well called information brokers, and what they specialize in - in Britain they call this blagging, but we call it misrepresentation here. And what they do is they misrepresent who they are. They'll call up the phone company, they'll call up the bank, they'll call up the credit card company and get your records.
They do these kinds of things and do a wide variety of other things, as well, various private investigators, including surveillances - surveillances, as it turns out, on members of the parliament.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Lowell Bergman, and he's the reporter for a new "Frontline" that will be broadcast Tuesday called "Murdoch's Scandal," and it's all about the phone hacking and bribery scandals at Rupert Murdoch's British tabloids. So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Lowell Bergman. We're talking about his new "Frontline" documentary called "Murdoch's Scandal," which airs Tuesday on public television stations, and it's about the phone hacking and bribery scandal at the Rupert Murdoch tabloids in England. And that scandal is just getting larger as time goes on.
So earlier, you raised the question: why is it that back in 2003, during a parliamentary hearing about media intrusion into privacy, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson from the Murdoch tabloids, people high up in those tabloids, said that yes they paid the police for information - which is illegal - why is it that they said it back then, and nobody picked up on it to investigate it?
Perhaps one of the reasons is that if you did go after the Murdoch tabloids, they came after you. An example of that is the member of parliament who actually asked the question to Rebekah Brooks: Do you pay the police for information? His name is Chris Bryant. And what happened to him?
BERGMAN: Well, as he tells the story, actually some time after that, about a month or so after that, he runs into Rebekah Brooks at a party, where she's...
GROSS: Who's then the editor of...
BERGMAN: Of the Sun. And she starts to, as he puts it, say unkind things to him about that she knows that he's gay. This has – he has a little bit of tussle. He's discombobulated. She's taken away by her husband. And then soon after, he gets what he calls monstered by the tabloids. And this seems to a phrase I wasn't familiar with before, where they single out an individual and literally go after you day after day.
So they began to show pictures of him in his underwear pictures, they could find anywhere they - any picture they could find of him that was in some way compromising, talking about him being a member of parliament, being gay, et cetera, and leaning on him and, he thought for a while, endangering his political career, but he was re-elected.
GROSS: Was he not already out?
BERGMAN: He was out amongst his friends. So it wasn't that big a deal for him personally. But he wasn't out, if you will, to everyone at large.
GROSS: So that's just one example of what happened if you did ask questions about their procedures.
BERGMAN: And if you, in his words, if you get in the way.
GROSS: So what did he do after he was monstered?
BERGMAN: Well, he worked his way through it. He's still in politics, and obviously with the scandals, he's become more of a prominent figure in Britain because he's continuing to pursue the investigations.
But I think the most important part of all this, is that there was no police investigation after a public admission - we pay the police - by the editor of a major newspaper. There was no - we know from the News Corporation and its answers back in New York to various questions, including some questions we had for them recently in writing, they did not launch any investigation to find out what was going on inside.
And when we asked the, sort of, veteran editor, the man who really created the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, about it - about whether or not he paid the police or knew about it, he said no one ever told him.
GROSS: So do you have any idea how high the bribery scandal within the police in England goes?
BERGMAN: We know from public statements by the police, which are very unusual for various reasons, given their criminal procedure, that in these public statements they say there was a culture of corruption at The Sun and, in particular, and that it created a core group of people within the Metropolitan Police - we're talking about Scotland Yard, the largest police force in England and sort of the equivalent of let's say the criminal division of the FBI - that they had a core group of people inside the Metropolitan Police who were being paid off, some of them in excess of six figures in pounds.
GROSS: And a former reporter from one of the tabloids talks with you for your "Frontline" documentary, and he talks about the pressure on reporters at those tabloids to get big stories, 12 big stories a year. And he offers that as a reason why the reporters were willing to break the rules.
BERGMAN: Well, again, it's our understanding, both from the public record and testimony that's taken place in this public inquiry called the Leveson Inquiry, as well as talking to sources, that bribery by at least the Murdoch tabloids was endemic for decades. This was not a practice that just emerged in the early 1990s, especially as it relates to the police.
GROSS: Now, in talking about how the papers would go after anybody who tried to investigate them, there is a lawyer who - named Mark Lewis(ph) - who represented - who by now has represented a lot of victims of the phone hacking scandal. But he was like I think the first lawyer to really go after the papers. And give us an example of what he did.
BERGMAN: Well, the story of Mark Lewis is really this - as he put it, it's like getting into a Grisham novel for him.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BERGMAN: He's an attorney in Manchester, he's not in London. He's in a firm that represents, happens to represent some of the soccer clubs locally. And he's handed a brief that says that one of their clients believes that his phones were hacked by News of the World because he'd been informed of that by the police, although no story had ever appeared.
And Mark Lewis does something that apparently no one else had done at that point. He, under British law, files a suit against the police department because they had mentioned this to the client, that's what initiated this, to see what else do they know.
And he discovers by doing that - and this is kind of another seminal moment of by chance - the police officer he meets shows him, apparently, more than he was supposed to show him. And it shows him that many people were hacked, that this wasn't just his client, and it wasn't just the royal family. And that this was an ongoing practice of the tabloids, in particular News of the World.
Armed with that information, he decides to write a letter to the News of the World and its prominent general counsel, Mr. Crone, well-known in England and in media circles, and figures that he is going to - and writes a letter asking for damages, somewhere in like the low five figures. I believe it was about 10,000 pounds.
Now, he thought that was a lot of money at the time because for non-published stories involving invasion of privacy, the average payment was somewhere around 3,000 pounds, $4,000, let's say, $4,500. And he thought he was asking for quite a bit. The next thing he knows, he gets a phone call from Mr. Crone's secretary asking him, when would he be available for a meeting with Mr. Crone, who is on the train to Manchester. He knew something is up.
GROSS: And the person he's representing in this particular case was Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers Association, whose phone was hacked. So how was this resolved?
BERGMAN: Well, Lewis, hearing the attorney out, decides to continually raise the fee. Initially he tells him, after the initial thing, well, I think we want 25,000, and he goes away, Mr. Crone goes away, and he doesn't get back to him for a number of days. When they call back, apparently ready to agree, he raises it again.
He finally gets to 250,000 pounds, and then the negotiations really get serious. Eventually, they settle for over 700,000 pounds, including legal fees. And for that, the News International, the subsidiary of News Corporation, of Murdoch's company in England, gets a zipper, that is gets Mr. Taylor's lips sealed, Mr. Lewis' lips sealed so that they will never reveal what happened.
GROSS: Lowell Bergman will be back in the second half of the show. His "Frontline" documentary "Murdoch's Scandal" premieres, Tuesday on public TV stations. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lowell Bergman, the correspondent for the new PBS "Frontline" documentary "Murdoch's Scandal" which airs next Tuesday. It's about the scandal surrounding two British tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch - the News of the World and The Sun, whose journalists are alleged to have gotten confidential information by hacking into phone messages and bribing the police. The News of the World folded as a result of the scandal.
When we left off, we were talking about Mark Lewis, the first lawyer to go head-to-head with Murdoch's lawyers in a phone-hacking case. The first hacking victim Lewis represented was Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers' Association. That case led Mark Lewis to take on many more phone-hacking cases.
So what else did he contribute to exposing information about corrupt practices within the tabloids?
BERGMAN: Well, once the story started to break, Mark Lewis became the center, if you will, of the litigation against News International. Now, that's the British subsidiary of News Corporation. And also in many ways the person who would be able to, if you will, refute from the evidence he had collected, various statements made. One of the documents that apparently he unearthed in one of his cases, which eventually becomes public in 2009, is a startling document. It's known as though for Neville email, and basically it shows that the News Corporation, publicly, after the scandal with Prince William and the royal household, that News Corporation had designed a, if you will, a theory, a public theory for what was going on. They said we had a rogue reporter - Clive Goodman, who was their royal reporter - and a private investigator - a Mr. Mulcaire, and that this was an anomaly, this was a two people who were doing this, it didn't go any further.
Well, what we know, now that we've seen the for Neville email as of 2009 and more documents that have come out subsequently in a public inquiry - some of them, at one point or another, through Mr. Lewis's hands - is that they knew all about it. They knew this was widespread. They knew there were thousands of hacking going on, at least with hundreds of people, and that this was something that was done regularly, particularly by reporters from News of the World. We now believe, from other reports it's going to come out, that other Murdoch newspapers were hacking and staffs were hacking. And in addition, you start to get the taint of also that original allegation or admission, if you will, in 2003, of bribery.
GROSS: How did this email for Neville reveal the way that other people within the papers knew, and were complicit, in the hacking?
BERGMAN: When Mr. Lewis sued the police department they handed over certain documents that showed that his client had been hacked, that is Gordon Taylor. An included in those documents was an email which was to a transcriber who had been given 35 different voicemail conversations to transcribe, that he was doing for a man named Neville Thurlbeck, who was then the chief reporter for News of the World. Neville Thurlbeck's name had never come up as one of the rogue reporters. In fact, there were no other reporters that were named. And it wasn't just one conversation, it was 35 conversations. So right there - think of this way, this came out public in 2009. In 2007, Lewis knew about this and he's watching testimony by Les Hinton, then the executive in charge of News International, later to be in charge - overall charge - of The Wall Street Journal, and all News Corporation publications in the United States, a 50 year veteran of working with - Australian veteran - with Rupert Murdoch. And Mr. Hinton testified, before parliament in 2007, to this rogue reporter theory. It was a rogue reporter. It was one private investigator. It went no further. It's all been investigated. It's over. So he knows that they're lying or they're not informed. You know, I mean we can give Mr. Hinton and the out that he didn't know what was going on. Which he says, now, that he didn't know what was going on.
GROSS: So Mark Lewis, the lawyer who is representing clients who believe that their phone mail messages were hacked, and he's really going after the Murdoch tabloids because of this, his family is put under surveillance. Is he put under surveillance, too, by Murdoch's company?
BERGMAN: Yeah. We now know from documents that he and a woman he was going out with and worked with were put under surveillance, as was his ex-wife and his child - his then teenage child - by a private investigator hired by News International. And, you know, you have to understand that it isn't just that they just go out and hire private investigators. We now know that some of these private investigators, like Mulcaire and others, worked in the newsroom. Or were told, become journalists. Join the journalism union. So they were integrating these investigators in their newsroom operations. But these surveillances were ordered. In fact, James Murdoch, who succeeded Mr. Hinton, is head of European operations for the News Corporations has now publicly apologized to Mr. Lewis and to Tom Watson, a member of Parliament, for putting them under surveillance.
GROSS: And James Murdoch, who's Rupert Murdoch's son, has left News International, the British arm of News Corp, and he's in the United States now, isn't he?
BERGMAN: Yeah. He's actually back more or less doing what he had been doing before, which was he's still the executive at these BSkyB, the satellite system, and he's evolved in other on demand and other entertainment operations of News Corporation.
GROSS: In England or in the U.S.?
GROSS: Worldwide. OK.
BERGMAN: But based from New York.
GROSS: Now, you know, no one is still employed with the papers would talk to you. Rupert Murdoch, his son James Murdoch wouldn't talk with you. So a lot of like to direct actors in the scandal weren't available for comment, which I guess, is not a big surprise. So...
BERGMAN: It was a surprise for me.
GROSS: Why were you surprised?
BERGMAN: Well, you know, I did work at The New York Times during the period when it went through the - if you may remember - the Jayson Blair episode where someone was making up stories and getting them in the paper. And at The New York Times - and I was actually trying to restrain some of my colleagues - the paper officially went on a kind of obsession with telling the audience everything it knew about what had gone on inside at The New York Times – so to get honest with its readers and with its audience. This is the News Corporation - that's its title. It does own some really legitimate news outlets, like The Wall Street Journal. It owns a television news operation on cable and it seems unfettered in what it's willing to talk about. Over the top, sometimes. I think it's even proud of that. And it owns reputable newspapers in Britain as well as these tabloids. And no one will talk? And that's what really surprised me, across the boards - silence. And I even went to the extent of writing letters, personal letters, to two dozen people inside the organization after trying to talk to people of the phone, and the only response was a letter from Rupert Murdoch himself.
BERGMAN: A very short note, saying he was unable to talk about this at this time. But everyone else – it's been silence. And - but except for The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and I tried them as well. They have written editorials about it complaining about some of the coverage.
GROSS: My guest is Lowell Bergman and he's the reporter for the new "Frontline" documentary "Murdoch's Sandal," which is about the tabloid scandal in England. And the Frontline documentary will be broadcast on Tuesday.
Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, and he's the reporter for a new Frontline documentary called "Murdoch's Sandal," about the tabloid scandal in England, where the papers, that the Murdoch owned papers, were accused of hacking into voicemail messages and bribing police for information. And those investigations are not only ongoing, they are expanding. And this "Frontline" documentary will be broadcast Tuesday on public television stations.
So one of the people you did speak to was Nick Davies, a journalist with the Guardian, one of the papers in England. And he was able to dig up a lot of information about the tabloid scandal. What was his first break into the story?
BERGMAN: Nick Davies happened to be going to a dinner party and he was sitting next to, it turned out, a senior official at Scotland Yard. And he had been following the eight victims who had been identified as a result of the phone-hacking investigation, at least publicly by Scotland Yard, who had filed lawsuits. And he turned his dinner partner and he said, is it only eight victims? Is it only eight people who had been pursuing settlements or lawsuits who had been hacked? And the gentleman turned and said, oh no, thousands. And that set Nick Davies off on a quest to find out more. To find out if it was thousands there must have been many, many more victims and many thousands of voicemails hacked. And he turned out to be right.
GROSS: So as a journalist, does it give you any comfort to know that in the face of corrupt journalism, there was a journalist like Nick Davies who started to root out the corruption and report on it?
BERGMAN: Well, it's always - I'm always amazed that there are colleagues who are actually able to get stories I couldn't imagine and actually have the guts to stand up for the kind of blowback he got, particularly after that major story in 2009, when you have the police, the senior executive of the largest media organization in the country, and others, coming right at you.
GROSS: How did they come at him?
BERGMAN: Well, after that first initial story, the police go out public, in front of the Scotland Yard building, right near sign and say this story is overblown, we've known all of this, there's nothing new, don't even think about it. And that's followed by a letter from Rebekah Brooks, then head of the News Corporation's subsidiary in Britain, charge of all newspapers, saying it's based on confidential sources, unidentified documents and this should be investigated, that sent the head of this parliamentary committee. And in the months that follow, in fact, the police themselves, the superintendent of Scotland Yard, and separately the assistant commissioner in charge of the investigation go and talk to his editor and say drop the case. This is going nowhere, this story; you're on a bad trail.
Let me maybe step back and say that what, think about this. Think about the criminal division of the FBI, which basically is this part of the metropolitan police, combined with the largest media organization in the United States, with vast news outlets and the White House working together, and with money changing hands and deals being made. That's the breadth and scope of the story.
GROSS: And by the way, Nick Davies apparently couldn't get any other papers interested in the story. Usually you want your paper to own the story, but he wanted other papers to pursue it too and no one would bite.
BERGMAN: This well, only the Independent, which is an independent daily newspaper in Britain - not by any means as big as the Murdoch papers - would write about it. But one of the scariest things in journalism is to be out there on your own on a story, that no one picks it up, that no one advances it, you know, that's the story of Watergate when it started. And so those are the really vulnerable moments when you're there by yourself. And so Alan Rusbridger, the managing editor of the Guardian, also confronted with the police telling him to give up the story, when he's convinced it's a story, picks up the phone and calls The New York Times.
GROSS: Now let's talk about Rupert Murdoch a little bit. He's a, you know, a very wealthy and a very powerful man. And in England he's been very connected to the prime ministers ever since Margaret Thatcher. And his papers endorsed her. And I think they had a, you know, a close relationship. Would that be the right word?
BERGMAN: A very friendly, mutually...
GROSS: Friendly. Yes.
BERGMAN: ...mutually supportive relationship.
GROSS: Mutually supportive. And so what way did she support him?
BERGMAN: Well, they relaxed media ownership rules in Britain, so that for instance, he could expand from his two tabloid newspapers to buy The Times on Sunday and the regular Times of London as well early in her administrations. And, you know, for years there have been allegations - from everyone from Harold Evans, who was the first editor of The Times that Rupert Murdoch fired, to others - that there was some kind of collusion between the Thatcher government and Rupert Murdoch that dated even before her election, during the campaign. And it turned out just the other day, that a memo from inside Mrs. Thatcher's office recounting a meeting where Rupert Murdoch came in during the campaign to lay out his business plans for newspaper in Britain was discussed by the two of them.
GROSS: And what about subsequent prime ministers who Murdoch supported? How did they support him?
BERGMAN: He switched allegiances from John Major, who succeeded Mrs. Thatcher, to Tony Blair in the early 1990s after Mr. Blair went to Australia, and some people would say, on bended knee, and you can see it in the documentary "To Australia" to a news corporation summer celebration to pay his homage to Mr. Murdoch. And this was done again, by the way, by David Cameron.
He went to Rupert's yacht prior to his election. So he became, in many ways, the kingmaker in Britain. An American citizen of Australian birth becomes the kingmaker in the home of the Commonwealth.
GROSS: So, what about the Rupert Murdoch media operations in the United States? And the operations he owns here, include the Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal. Has there been any evidence or any question of whether the media operations here are implicated in any, you know, bribery or hacking?
BERGMAN: Not that we came across, no.
GROSS: Is there any evidence, since you've been working on the subject, that other tabloids in the United States are guilty of the same kind of thing that the Murdoch British tabloids are allegedly guilty of?
BERGMAN: Well, first of all, the British tabloids were operating here. They had reporters here, stationed in Los Angeles and Washington is my understanding - the two main places. And they did as part of their operations in Britain, to supply their publications in Britain, did do things here in the United States and did retain or work with private investigators to get information about people here in the U.S.
They also conducted surveillances here in the United States, for example, on Michael Jackson, in pursuit of celebrity stories. Do we have any evidence that they hacked into phones here in the United States? No, not at this time.
GROSS: So here's something I'm wondering about. Like, you've been an investigative reporter for so long. You used to work for "60 Minutes" as a reporter there, and you were portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie "The Insider" about corruption within the tobacco industry. So are you, like, shocked at the allegations of what has happened in the Murdoch media empire? Or did you think, oh, now we have some evidence of what people, kind of, suspected before?
BERGMAN: I'll tell you, I'm not shocked that some people were paying off the police. You know, I'm old enough to go back to the era when certain reporters on newspapers thought they were police. I mean, they were literally, you know, the police reporters. Some of them used to carry badges in the old days. And lots of favors changed hands.
I'm not shocked that a police department might do X or Y and look the other way. And I'm not necessarily shocked that's there interplay between the center of power, in this case Downing Street or the White House, and reporters.
What shocked me was how this was all a very small group of people who were all playing in the same game in London, and the scale of it, the intimacy of it, how close they were; and the fact that Parliament, for instance, really didn't have the power or the will to get to the bottom of it. And that it was, in the end, a Manchester lawyer, a reporter for, relatively speaking, a marginal newspaper, "The Guardian"...
- it's tiny compared to the Murdoch papers - and a few members of Parliament were the bumps in the road that allowed this to come out.
GROSS: Well, Lowell Bergman, thank you so much for talking with us.
BERGMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: Lowell Bergman is the correspondent for the Frontline documentary "Murdoch's Scandal" which airs Tuesday on public TV stations. Bergman is also a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new movie "The Hunger Games." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.