EXCLUSIVE: Oscar and Emmy-winning British production company Rise Films is developing the first major television drama series on the phone-hacking scandal that shook the very foundations of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in the early noughties.
Rise Films, which made Oscar-winning Netflix doping documentary Icarus, will use the series to provide an insider’s perspective on the industrial-scale illegal information gathering at British tabloid newspaper, the News Of The World, after securing exclusive access to the journalists and private investigators who intercepted the voicemails of Hollywood stars, politicians, and murder victims.
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The series will be penned by Luke Neal, the breakout writer behind ITV’s David Tennant drama, Des, which told the story of British serial killer Dennis Nilsen and was the broadcaster’s highest-rated drama of 2020. Saul Dibb, the helmer of The Salisbury Poisonings, BBC One’s most-watched drama in six years, has been attached to direct the phone-hacking series. AMC Networks picked up both Des and The Salisbury Poisonings, with the former streaming on Sundance Now.
Rise Films will take the series to market in the coming weeks and the company has titled the project Thank You & Goodbye, which is a nod to the headline on the final edition of the News Of The World after it was brutally shut down by Murdoch in July 2011 following the revelation that the paper had hacked the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a murdered British schoolgirl. The Guardian’s reporting on Dowler was a lightning-bolt moment in the phone-hacking scandal, taking it from a simmering media controversy to a source of international outrage.
Thank You & Goodbye will take viewers inside the News Of The World newsroom, examing how it became acceptable for journalists and hired guns to tap into the private messages of public figures including Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant, who later became a significant thorn in the side of Murdoch’s News International, now known as News UK. Rise Films has secured access to some of the perpetrators convicted of phone-hacking to build an unflinching story, which originally started life as a documentary on a crisis that sparked 100 arrests, the imprisonment of Downing Street’s communications chief, Andy Coulson, and a major public inquiry. Murdoch was also hauled in front of British lawmakers to give evidence days after the News Of The World’s closure, describing it as the “most humble day of my life.”
Producers felt, however, it could be told on a bigger scale through a drama, and they will also be tapping into the huge hunger around the world for real-life stories being told through scripted series. Phone-hacking has been the subject of countless documentaries, not least last year’s BBC series The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty, but a definitive drama has yet to be made on the affair. If The Wolf Of Wall Street dramatized Jordan Belfort’s insider view on major financial fraud, then this could well be The Wolf Of Fleet Street.
“The story of the phone-hacking scandal becomes more relevant every day,” said Rise Films managing director Teddy Leifer. “The scandal and subsequent inquiry exposed just how interconnected certain newspapers were with the upper echelons of the political elite. Even though the News Of The World was shut down, key players implicated in the scandal continued to take up positions of influence and shape the media ecosystem that surrounds us today.”
Neal added: “I believe by exploring — without judgement or sensationalism — the human nature of the people who contributed to this gross abuse of power, and trying to understand how and why they did this, is the only true way to stop this happening it again.” Dibb said phone-hacking was one of the most “important, gripping and richest stories of this century.”
As well as scooping an Oscar for Icarus, Rise Films clinched Emmys for The Invisible War and The Interrupters. The company is currently working with Judd Apatow to make a two-part documentary on legendary U.S. comedian George Carlin, while its scripted credits include Plebs, ITV2’s Roman-era comedy, which has run for five seasons.
Rise Films is repped by UTA and ACK Media Law. Dibb is repped by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates and WME, while Neal’s agent is United Agents.