Tuesday, July 12, 2011



For a newspaper that has prided itself on publishing scandal, the demise yesterday of the News of World may, one day, come to define the word irony.

As soon as the accounts of phonehacking by private detectives allegedly hired by journalists went from listening to the banal conversations of Z-list celebrities to potentially interfering in the judicial and criminal process in this country, it was clear that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, would have to do something radical to save the reputation of the rest of his global media empire.

In the business world, such product withdrawals are commonplace as corporations try to salvage their reputation quickly and show the markets that the owners are acting decisively to address the issue at hand. These are usually short term with the product quietly re-introduced later.

In the case of the News of the World, it surprised many within the industry that a decision had to be made not to temporarily stop the paper but to actually close it after 168 years.

However, its brand, despite being the bestselling paper in the world, had become toxic through its relationship with the phonehacking scandals, and it is probable that the paper would have lost advertisers and readers very quickly over the next few months.

Instead, its owners News International have taken the decision to close it down permanently, although many are suggesting that the News of the World’s sister paper, the Sun, will create a Sunday edition within the next few weeks, and so any loss of business may be temporary.

Of course, dealing with the loss of reputation to its owners may take longer.

Other reputations are also on the line, especially given the unhealthy and cosy relationship between journalists and political classes which many track back to the sofa style government run by Tony Blair and his PR supremo, Alastair Campbell.

Certainly, the current Prime Minister needs to review carefully his own actions in appointing a former News of the World editor to be one of his advisers and whether the government would be better served by having a more arm’s length relationship with the press.

Whilst the Labour Party has been critical over the last few days, its own cosy links with the Murdoch empire, particularly during Blair’s premiership, mustn’t be forgotten. Indeed, it is reported that senior Labour figures, including Ed Miliband, outnumbered Conservative ministers at News International's recent summer party hosted by Murdoch himself.

Not surprisingly, other newspapers have gone overboard over the last few days in gleefully reporting the problems facing News International and yet it is becoming clear that phonehacking was not confined to one newspaper.

Certainly, the closure of the News of the World does not conveniently exonerate others who have been involved in such practices. Indeed, the newspaper industry as whole must work collectively to restore public trust and be honest about any past misdemeanours.

The last thing this nation needs, despite the excesses of one or two newspapers, is government imposing restrictions on a free press that stops the “great and the good” being held to account for their actions, as they were during the MPs expenses scandal.

Indeed, it has been stomach churning to listen to those formerly in public office who have been legitimately caught out by the paper’s journalism trying to justify their own previous misdemeanours.

As the great Thomas Jefferson once said, “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will.”

The challenge for the newspaper industry is to show that it can sort itself out and again be a force for free speech and democracy for without it, we are a much poorer society in more ways than one.