Friday, July 08, 2011

NOTW closure just damage limitation

After months of attempting to deflect criticism over phone hacking abuses the News of the World is to be closed after 168 years.

The closure is a landmark in British journalism, especially given the papers long history. It also marks a low point for journalism given the damage done to newspapers and journalism as a whole by the practices of the News of the World.


The practice of phone hacking is said to have begun in 2006 as reporters at the News of the World used private investigators to illegally gain access to hundreds of mobile phone voicemail accounts held by a variety of people of interest to the newspaper.

Within a year the paper's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, pleaded guilty to illegal interception of personal communication and was jailed for four months and the paper's editor, Andy Coulson resigned. But the revelations of the underhand tactics and the jailing of a journalist did not dissuade others from using phone hacking as a method to obtain information.

In 2009 and 2010 further revelations emerged on the extent of the phone hacking, and how it was common knowledge within the News of the World and its News International parent. According to a former reporter at the paper, "Everyone knew. The office cat knew," about the illegal activities used to scoop stories.

Investigations into the News of the World's methods were investigated not only by the police but also rival papers. On January 17, 2011, The Guardian reported that Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator paid by the News of the World, testified that he had been asked by the newspaper's leadership to hack voicemail accounts on its behalf. In April 2011, attorneys for the victims alleged that as many as 7,000 people had their phones hacked by the News of the World and it was further revealed that the paper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, had attempted to pressure then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour Party MPs to "back away" from investigating the scandal.

Then came the arrest of three journalists on the newspaper. Ian Edmondson and Neville Thurlbeck were arrested on 5th April and James Weatherup on 14th April prompting the paper to apologise "unreservedly" for its phone hacking activities during April 2011.

But this was not enough, not only for the rest of Fleet Street, but also the police and the British public. Criticism mounted with each new hacking revelation. On 4th July 2011, it was disclosed that potential evidence had been deleted in spring 2002 from the hacked voicemail account of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler [Guardian]. The girl was later found to have been murdered and the fact that messages were deleted from her phone to make way for others incensed the public mood. It was later revealed that bombing victims from London's 2005 terror attack were also targeted by phone hackers paid for by the News of the World [BBC].

The fallout was growing fast. Advertisers began to pull out and social networking platforms began to launch campaigns against the paper and those supporting it financially.

Bombshell falls

Then came the bombshell. At around 17:00 UK time on the 7th July reports began to emerge that the News of the World was to publish its last edition on Sunday 10th July.

As news spread Twitter was swamped with comments and revelations. Staff at the News of the World were said to be in tears while victims of the phone hacking were in a celebratory mood.

Most of Friday's newspapers [Sky News-papers] led with the story, with headlines such as "Hacked to death", "The End of the World" and the "Paper that died in shame".

News commentary ran through the evening on BBC Radio 5 Live and on the BBC World Service as well as on major television networks. While many commentators lauded the decision some of those who had criticised the paper's methods said that the closure did not go far enough. There were continued calls for Rebekah Brooks, the former editor, now News International's chief executive, to resign. According to Sky News she had offered to quit her role but this was rejected by News International and in an interview Rupert Murdoch stood by her saying he was satisfied with her conduct.

In a statement made to staff, Murdoch said all the good things the News of the World did "have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong - indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company". [Full statement]

James Murdoch, son of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and now Deputy Chief Operating Officer of owner News Corporation, said the News of the World was "in the business of holding others to account". But he said, "It failed when it came to itself."

In a statement, James Murdoch said he was "convinced" the decision to shut the paper was "the right thing to do". The profits from the last edition would be handed to good causes he announced. No commercial advertising would be offered in the paper, instead "Any advertising space in this last edition will be donated to causes and charities that wish to expose their good works to our millions of readers," he said [The Sun].

However, despite the decision to end the papers nearly 200 year history, there may be few advertisements in the paper even of charitable organisations. The latest organisation to sever ties was the British Legion which pulled out after the revelations over hacking serving members of the armed forces and their families. "We can't with any conscience campaign alongside News of the World on behalf of Armed Forces families while it stands accused of preying on these same families in the lowest depths of their misery. The hacking allegations have shocked us to the core," a spokesman for the Royal British Legion said [Telegraph].

Rebranding exercise

The closure of the paper has been cynically labelled as a "rebranding exercise" and that it amounts to little more than an effort to limit the damage done to News Corporation. "All they're going to do is rebrand it," Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said in an interview. In fact there are already rumours that the Sun may launch a Sunday edition.

Focus has already begun to shift to other enterprises owned by the organisation and whether its journalistic integrity is intact, publications like the Sun and the New York Post and television outlets like Fox News. There are also questions being voiced over the BSkyB takeover.

Mark Pritchard, secretary of the influential Conservative backbench 1922 committee and vice-chairman of the parliamentary media group, has told the BBC he wants the government to delay a decision on the BskyB takeover. "The government should take the political and moral lead - and announce a delay to the BSkyB decision until all outstanding legal impediments have been removed," he said. Shares in BSkyB fell on fears that the scandal could hinder parent company News Corp's bid for the broadcaster, though it is as yet unclear whether the closure of the News of the World will mark a downturn of the Murdoch empire as a whole.

Journalistic ethics

Aside the appalling behaviour of the News of the World in recent years, especially as regards to the phone hacking scandal, there is no paper that can claim to be entirely squeaky clean when it comes to journalistic morals and ethics.

Tabloids in particular have stepped over the line many times, leading in some cases to litigation, apologies and payouts. In 1987 the Daily Star lost a high profile libel action brought by Jeffrey Archer, leading to an award of £500,000 in damages, over allegations of Archer's involvement with Monica Coghlan.

Following the disappearance toddler Madeleine McCann in Spain, both the Daily Star and its Sunday equivalent, as well as its stablemates the Daily Express and Sunday Express, featured heavy coverage of the missing girl. In 2008 the McCann family sued the Star and Express for libel following the newspapers' coverage of the case. The action concerned more than 100 stories across the Daily Express, Daily Star and their Sunday equivalents, which accused the McCanns of involvement in their daughter's disappearance. The newspapers' coverage was regarded by the McCanns as grossly defamatory. In a settlement at the High Court of Justice, the newspapers agreed to run a front-page apology to the McCanns on 19th March 2008, publish another apology on the front pages of the Sunday editions on 23th March and make a statement of apology at the High Court. They also agreed to pay costs and substantial damages, which the McCanns planned to use to aid their search for their daughter. In its apology, the Daily Star apologised for printing "stories suggesting the couple were responsible for, or may be responsible for, the death of their daughter Madeleine and for covering it up" and stated that "We now recognise that such a suggestion is absolutely untrue and that Kate and Gerry are completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter's disappearance."

The Daily Mirror has also had its fair share of controversy over its 108 year history. In April 1963, The Sunday Mirror published a two-page guide called "How to Spot a Homo" which listed "shifty glances", "dropped eyes" and "a fondness for the theatre" as signs of being gay. Although the paper has rarely found itself in court it has published many stories later to be proved as fake. The most notable case was the publishing of photographs said to be of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. The paper was forced to apologise and its editor was sacked [CNN].

The Daily Telegraph had to apologise on four occasions after prematurely publishing the obituaries of notable people though it has yet to find itself in the dock. The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times have also avoided court action, but even the so-called broadsheets have published information which could only have been obtained illegally. One notable example is the Daily Telegraph's publishing of details of MP's expenses which led to the resignation of many embarrassed members of parliament and a shake up of the expenses system.

'Public interest'

It is the supposed judgement call of whether something is in the public interest that has pushed papers into breaking the law or ignoring certain ethical standards. But a mitigating factor is also a financial one. Exclusive stories have increased circulation of the tabloids in particular, and the News of the World has arguably broke the mould in this regard. But such stories have come at a price. The paper has found itself in court dozens of times and paid out large sums to plaintiffs. The recent revelations were seen as a step too far for a paper whose circulation had shrunk significantly since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1969. In 1950 the paper had sold an average of 8 million copies each Sunday, but by 2009 its circulation had dropped to less than 3 million, showing a year-on-year fall of 5.67% and a month-on-month fall of 5.26% [Guardian].

Some suggest the fall in sales indicated that a more educated public were less interested in the tittle tattle published by the tabloid newspaper market. However, all papers have seen a decline in their circulation since the advent of the Internet and online publishing.

As the News of the World shuts its doors on Sunday the biggest victim will be some 200 journalists and photographers. Many will find it difficult to obtain work in a market already suffering since the 2008 recession. Many freelancers will also find themselves without an important client. The 'Screws' as they were often referred to by hacks in the field would often lead the way as they cottoned on to a story. As the first journalist or snapper turned up at a celebrity's house on a Thursday, word quickly spread around other tabloid newsrooms and by Friday or Saturday journalists from the other red tops would also be sniffing around. Many such stories often came to nothing but it kept many a starving journalist off the dole. In short the News of the World was the bread and butter for many journalists and photographers.

It perhaps was only a matter of time as to when the paper would fold. In more ways than one it screwed its own final nail in its own coffin.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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