Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Wapping Bombshell

"We didn't think it could get any worse," News of the World political editor David Woodman told the BBC on Thursday. But it did. A lot worse.

Shortly after 4.15pm on Thursday, July 7, the newspaper's 280 staff gathered in the second-floor Wapping newsroom to hear James Murdoch's statement that the News of the World would publish it's final edition today.

After a week of searing accusations, allegations and insinuations, Murdoch Junior (and, it should be assumed, Murdoch Senior) had had enough. The most-read English-language newspaper in the world would print one more edition and then, in the best tradition of many of its infamous exposés, make its excuses and leave.

There will be many people who will say "good riddance", and others who'll say "who cares?". I'm sure there are plenty who have dismissed the whole brouhaha as a lot of media types getting their knickers in a twist about, well, a lot of media types. To do so, however, would be to ignore the political and cultural significance of the whole affair.

Press freedom is something we should care about greatly. Regardless of how far newspapers like the News of the World have stretched it over the years, the basic right of the Fourth Estate to uncover wrongdoing, expose the shameful, and burst the pomposity of the privileged who abuse their privilege is one which should be protected at all costs.

Whatever you think of the News of the World's frequently tawdry news agenda, it had, for the most part, upheld the solid traditions of what a newspaper is meant to do - deflating the over-inflated by applying investigative instincts and campaigning on behalf of those who don't have a voice.

That it lurched, like everything else in celebrity-obsessed Britain, towards the crass and the degenerate doesn't take anything away from the fact that it had been a more credible and authentic voice of working class Britain than any other news organisation, its sister title The Sun included. Mazher Mahmood - the so-called 'Fake Sheikh' - actually scored some creditable hits with his entrapment scams, which nabbed Sarah Ferguson offering her ex-husband up like some Royal pimping operation, and Pakistani cricket officials accepting piles of cash to throw test matches.

However, despite its self-promotional claims about being a champion of victims of crime and wrongdoing, nothing can escape the fact that hacking the mobile phones of teenage murder victims, the relatives of terrorism attacks and the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq is about as morally bankrupt as it is possible to be. 

Though no doubt prepared by the best PR brains at his disposal, and clinincally vetted by his lawyers, James Murdoch's statement on Thursday was a remarkable document: "The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself," he said, adding that despite  criminal convictions for the original Royal phone hacking scandal, "...the News of the World and News International failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoing that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose."

Stunningly - and with a possible swipe at the very executives who have been protected by the decision to close the newspapers - Murdoch pointed out: "Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued."

The decision to close the News of the World was a bold but clever act. Mindful that the newspaper's reputation and brand had been mired forever, and sensing the risk to News International and its parent, News Corporation, the Murdochs had the News of the World cauterized. In the process, they cleared the path for a long expected move to seven-day operations for The Sun and a further opportunity to stem losses within the company's UK newspaper operation of some £200,000 a day.

On top of that lay the bigger objective: protect BSkyB at all costs. On a simple financial basis, it makes perfect sense. The News of the World earns something like £120 million a year in circulation revenue - the 'newstand' price - and a further £30-40 million in advertising revenue. Sky, on the other hand, rakes in £6 billion a year. So, despite shocking everyone by simply closing down the very newspaper that established the Murdoch beachhead in Britain, News International made a bold step to mitigate any threat to its full takeover of Sky.

The question now is, was it worth it? The Murdoch empire has been sailing choppy waters for a while. Newspapers are its foundation. Rupert Murdoch's father was a great print icon in Australia, and his son kept that going. Whatever your opinion of Murdoch's newspapers, or indeed his excessive influence on politics, he has always been a great newspaperman. Ink, one rival publication wrote this week, runs through his veins.

The problem is, ink is no longer the currency of information. The reassembled zeros and ones you're reading right now are the modern commodity. The printed word is in terminal decline. Over the last few years, the Murdoch print stable has been investing heavily in digital technology, creating multimedia editorial operations, turning traditional print hacks (a questionable name, now, to describe a journalist) into videographers. The invention of the Apple iPad has proven to be another boon, and the development of dedicated iPad apps for all of the News International titles in the UK may yet prove to be another stroke of genius. Certainly, consolidating the gargantuan Sunday Times into a portable digital format was a welcome idea that only those with a perverted addiction to the tactility of holding a newspaper would consider bad.

So, as five million copies of the very last edition of the  News of the World get snapped up, 200 journalists look for work, and their newsroom is sealed ahead of further police investigations into phone hacking, what next?

Rebekah Brooks remains at the helm of News International, bizarrely retained at the cost of an entire newspaper and its staff under the murky premise that she is "the best person to lead the company out of this crisis". Rupert Murdoch's takeover of BSkyB remains on hold. There is no decision, yet, on whether The Sun will be published on a Sunday.

In their attempt to find new angles and alternative nuances on this story, the rest of the British - and, indeed, global - media have concluded that this has been one of the most engrossing scandals to have gripped Britain in years. Some have likened it to Watergate. I'm not so sure, and the fact that this has been a scandal of the media, reported and then amplified by the media, may not put it in the proper perspective. If, ultimately, it costs Rupert Murdoch his entire empire (there are murmurings that it could even lead to BSkyB's operating licence being withdrawn), there will be other media organisations. Life will go on.

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