Nick Davies

40 Years of Investigative Reporting

Nick Davies spent 40 years as a journalist, mainly doing investigative work for The Guardian, before retiring in 2016.

Towards the end of his career, he was centrally involved in three landmark stories: uncovering the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire; initiating the alliance of news organisations which published US war logs and cables obtained by Wikileaks; and working as part of the team which handled the British end of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the US National Security Agency. A consistent theme through almost all of his work was the exposure of those who abused power – corporations bullying governments, governments perverting policy, powerful individuals exploiting the vulnerable.

He wrote six books including Flat Earth News which investigated the flow of falsehood, distortion and propaganda through mainstream news organisations and its devastating impact on the societies around them. It also exposed routine racism in the newsroom of the Daily Mail; the manipulation of the Observer by intelligence agencies; and the collapse of journalistic standards at the Sunday Times under Rupert Murdoch. His most recent book, Hack Attack, which detailed Murdoch’s interference in government as well as the crime in his newsrooms, is currently being made into a film by George Clooney.

He was named journalist of the year, feature writer of the year and reporter of the year in British press awards and won the special awards for investigative reporting which are given in memory of Martha Gellhorn, Paul Foot and Tony Bevins. He is an honorary doctor of literature at the London School of Economics and the Open University; an honorary fellow of the University of Westminster and Goldsmiths College, London; and a fellow of the Orwell Prize Foundation. Hundreds of reporters from the UK, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Canada and Serbia have attended his one-day masterclass in the techniques of investigative reporting.

Davies began his career as a messenger boy at the Guardian before becoming a trainee journalist with the Mirror Group from October 1976. By July 1979, he had switched to quality papers, starting work as a news reporter for The Guardian where he covered the siege at the Iranian embassy in London; the riots in Brixton; and the trials of the Yorkshire Ripper, Dennis Nilsen and mainland IRA activists. He worked on investigations into police corruption and the targeting of soft left groups by the UK Security Service, MI5. He went on to become Home Affairs Correspondent of The Observer and Chief Feature Writer of the short-lived London Daily News before beginning three decades as a freelance in 1987.

This included a period in Melbourne, where he worked for The Age, exposing Australia’s two biggest pornographers (both members of the Rotary Club) and naming seven doctors who were risking prosecution to give euthanasia to terminally-ill patients; and in Washington DC where he worked on British links to the Iran-Contra scandal and wrote a weekly column about Reagan’s America for The Scotsman and the Wellington Royal Dominion in New Zealand.

For The Guardian, he specialised in applying techniques of investigative reporting to social issues, producing in-depth work on the explosive growth of poverty in the UK under Mrs Thatcher’s government; the hidden epidemic of child sexual abuse; and the pornography industry. He also published detailed exposees of the structural failure of official policy on schools, criminal justice and illegal drugs – all of which proved to be rooted in ignorance, populism and tabloid cliche. He exposed the tax affairs of Britain’s richest man, revealing that he was earning more from agricultural grants than he was paying in tax. Notoriously, he spent ten years investigating the editorial failings and criminal activity of mainstream news media.

In June 2010, he initiated the alliance of news organisations which published US military and diplomatic secrets which had been obtained by Wikileaks. That series provoked a global debate about US foreign policy and led to the Guardian winning the award of Newspaper of the Year. It was the subject of a film made by Dreamworks, Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange and with David Thewlis as Nick Davies.

Between July 2009 and July 2011, he wrote nearly a hundred Guardian stories about crime in Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and about the failure of British governments, police and press regulators to hold Murdoch to account. This led to six different police inquiries in England and Scotland, a series of arrests and criminal trials, and to the establishing of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the culture and practices of the press. His work on this subject won eight awards including the German Henri Nannen award for press freedom and the award as journalist of the year from the Foreign Press Association in London.

In the summer of 2013, he was part of the Guardian team which worked on a mass of material supplied by Edward Snowden about the UK government’s involvement in the mass surveillance of communications. This included exposing Operation Tempora, in which the UK spying agency GCHQ – acting without the approval of Parliament and with dubious legal authority – had attached wires to transatlantic cables as part of an attempt to intercept the entire flow of Internet and telecoms traffic. The Guardian and the Washington Post were jointly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their work with Snowden.

Davies published six books: White Lies, investigating a racist miscarriage of justice in Texas; Murder on Ward Four, exposing weaknesses in the National Health Service through a nurse’s attacks on children; Dark Heart, uncovering the scale and origins of UK poverty in stories from crack houses and street gangs; School Report, analysing the failure of government education policy; Flat Earth News, on falsehood, distortion and propaganda in quality news media, which won the first Bristol Festival of Ideas book award; and Hack Attack on Murdoch, crime and power.

He also wrote feature films and made TV documentaries. During the 1990s, he was an on-screen reporter for ITV’s main current affairs programme, World In Action.

He retired in September 2016, to travel in search of interesting experiences. He was last seen somewhere between a yoga shala in Indonesia and a cattle ranch in northern Argentina.