With Nick Davies’ Hacked Off racing up the charts, The Guardian supremo is getting fresh heat over the most dramatic claims made during the hackgate affair — that News of the World reporters had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager, and had thereby wiped messages from the phone. The vanishing of the messages caused police and the Dowler family to believe that Milly was still alive.

The false hope raised through the hacks’ actions created such a wave of abhorrence that News International knew the gig was up. Rupert Murdoch responded by meeting the Dowlers to apologise profusely — and by closing News of the World, a 170-year old newspaper. He then launched the Sunday Sun, with half the journalists and 90% of NOTW’s circulation.

When it became clear that there was no conclusive evidence that the phone hack had wiped the last messages — they had most likely simply expired — anger was turned on Davies, who was blamed for triggering the death of an institution, and the loss of a hundred or so jobs. Now in the UK Press Gazette, he has pushed back against the accusation, arguing, quite rightly, that the act of killing off NOTW was Murdoch’s decision alone. On shakier ground he suggests that proof that the hack didn’t delete the messages only came out later:

“The bottom line is that evidence that emerged four months after we broke that story that nobody was aware of, that the police found in the dusty archives — that evidence certainly casts significant doubt on that one element of the story.”

Well, hmmm, months later? In the dusty archives? The simplest way to establish whether it was responsible to talk about hacks deleting messages would have been to check with the phone provider to see what its system protocols were. That would have established that it was not certain that the messages had been wiped. Whether anyone at The Guardian thought to do this or not, they should have.

Davies claims that the trashing of the Dowler story is being done by “the bad guys”, and it’s true that the Murdoch minions did try to get a bit of mileage out of it when it happened. But by then, Murdoch had changed strategy and was about to throw News staff to the wolves, with an internal investigation committee designed to separate staff culpability from management. The disquiet over Davies’ claim came more from those who supported The Guardian’s investigation. The degree to which the story was central to The Guardian’s pitch was shown when corrections were appended to 37 different stories — the largest mass correction in the paper’s history.

But, of course, The Guardian needed this moment of abhorrence, so there was a motive not to question its own story. The “deleted” messages formed a focus for the whole series of articles — and The Guardian needs all the big scores it can get.

Inaugural Guardian Australia editor Kath Viner noted that the Guardian Media Group had half a billion quid in reserve after the sale of its AutoTrader magazine earlier this year. But that sale was The Guardian’s roll of the dice — with the cash flow from AutoTrader gone, and existing losses running at 30-40 million quid a year, the group has to cap losses and make the business model work, before the capital begins to be eaten into.

So The Guardian is in a race to establish itself before the cash runs out. That’s what jarred about the revelations, when it became clear that they were done with insufficient evidence. As UK historian David Starkey said, it was a tabloid moment committed in the persecution of tabloids.

Still, The Guardian has never been short on self-doubt. Or self-righteousness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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