The News of the World, rest, if not in peace

The major news story here, to the exclusion of almost everything else that is going on in the world around us, is the implosion of the Murdoch-owned tabloid Sunday newspaper, the News of the World. For those who are not UK newspaper junkies, the background of the current story is fairly well summarised here.

Let me begin by saying that I have never read the NoTW. It prides itself on investigative journalism, and it has brought several important scandals to the fore, including the Max Mosley S&M scandal, the former MP Mark Oaten’s relationships with male prostitutes, and the match-fixing scandals involving the Pakistani cricket team. Note, however, that most of their exposés have to do with sexual or titillating subjects. It has subsidised a man who pretends to be a Middle Eastern sheik and traps people into making various embarrassing admissions, which are secretly recorded and played back to the NoTW‘s adoring public.

However, in doing these things it made some real enemies. It’s been sued (and lost) several times. All this being said, it’s the most widely-read newspaper in the United Kingdom, with a circulation of more than 2 million copies every Sunday.

Except, this coming Sunday will be its last ever issue. James Murdoch, the son of Rupert, announced yesterday that, because of the phone hacking scandal, the NoTW will cease publication this Sunday. No commercial advertising will be printed in the paper, and all profits will be donated to charity or good causes.

This has come at a bad time for News International (the Murdoch company that owns all of the newspapers and media outlets that the Murdochs control) as they have been trying to get government approval to buy the portion of BSkyB, the satellite TV broadcaster, that they do not own. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable (a Liberal Democrat and perhaps the most able UK Cabinet minister), was tricked by the Daily Telegraph into admitting that he was not going to approve the sale, and thus he had to recuse himself. The “Minister of Fun”, Culture, Media, and Sport Minister Jeremy Hunt, will be the Cabinet minister who deals with the matter. He is believed to be very much in favour of News International and the Murdochs, and has said that he is “minded” (in that quaint English phrase) to approve the deal as long as BSkyB sells Sky News.

There is growing public sentiment against this deal because of the sleaziness of the Murdoch family and its media outlets here. It is still possible that the deal will be blocked, not least because News International’s share price has tumbled and his shareholders might be minded to tell Murdoch to quit trying for the purchase.

But, there’s more! The editor of the NoTW at the time the phone hacking was going on is one Andy Coulson, who loyally resigned when two of his reporters were convicted of hacking the phones of Princes William and Harry. Mr. Coulson later became a media advisor to the Conservative Party, and moved to Downing Street as his Press Secretary when David Cameron became Prime Minister.

When more hacking accusations were made, and News International paid off those whose phones were hacked, questions were raised as to whether Mr. Coulson knew about the hacking as editor. He says that he was blissfully ignorant of all these goings-on, but resigned as Press Secretary anyway, just in case.

Today he was arrested when he attended a police station in central London for questioning on the scandal. His predecessor as editor, Rebekah Brooks (née Wade) was promoted to CEO of News International relatively recently, and there has been much speculation as to how much she knows about it.

Some of the sleazy hacks that have been uncovered affect regular people, not politicians, movie stars, sports figures, or celebrities. For example, a schoolgirl was murdered around ten years ago. Her name was Millie Dowler. When she disappeared, a private detective working for the NoTW obtained her mobile number and hacked into her voicemail, which was, of course, full of worried messages from her family and friends. Then her mailbox filled up, and no more messages could be left. The detective then deleted some of the messages so that new ones could be left for him to listen to. Of course, the family had realised that her mailbox was full, and when it suddenly became available again, they assumed that she herself had deleted the messages (why would they assume anything else?) and thought that she was still alive, even though in reality, she had been dead for days and her body disposed of by the murderer.

Millie Dowler was not the only murder victim or victim’s family member who was hacked. When the schoolgirls Holly Welles and Jessica Chapman were murdered in Soham quite a while back, the private detective obtained the mobile phone numbers of her family members and hacked into their voice mail.

Some of the victims of the July 7th bombings here in London, 6 years and one day ago, had their phones hacked by NoTWdetectives in the aftermath of the attacks.

Now, in a way, no one minds if people who are legitimately in the public eye and who are thought to be sleazy (like politicians) are exposed as hypocrites (or worse) by newspapers, no matter what methods they use. However, when non-celebrities are spied on in this way, people think, “Geez, it could happen to me!” and get pretty upset.

But, there’s MORE! The NoTW has admitted to paying off police officers in return for information. I call that offering bribes. It also might explain why, when the original accusations were made and the original court case about the hacking of the Princes’ phones came about, the police then said that there was nothing further to be discovered and closed the case, even though all the material in which they are now finding these hacking cases was already in the possession of the police.

It is amazing. The NoTW-animal, wounded, is expiring while the vultures are circling around, deliriously happy that, at last, they will be able to rip it to shreds and devour it. Two-hundred employees of the NoTW, many if not most of whom are innocent of any wrongdoing, are out of jobs. The British public, always thirsting for scandal, is now drinking it in continuously. BBC Radio 4 is almost “All Murdoch scandal, all the time!” The Government may be severely affected by association with Coulson and Murdoch, because, did I say there’s MORE? The current News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, is a personal friend of the Prime Minister and often dines or lunches with him and his wife, along with her husband. And she is deeply involved in this.

Meanwhile, Rupert is in Idaho hobnobbing with other moguls and nabobs. He’s kept a low profile, we understand. Long may that continue. This story will run on and on—it will only end when someone is jailed nice and hard for it, and the media officially loses its struggle with the politicians for independent oversight.

And that’s why this is bad for the media. When they do true investigative journalism, and find things out legally and print them, they perform a public service. Politicians and celebrities are happy today because it’s unlikely that the tabloid press will be able to write and investigate with the same effectiveness as they have previously. And that means that the politicians can breathe easier, since the newspapers will be hampered in their role as shit-stirrers.

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