Yesterday’s announcement by News Corporation that their Sunday tabloid the News of the World is to be closed next Sunday sent ripples through British and world media. What has been brewing up for months, even years, as intrusion in private lives of a few celebrities through phone hackings, suddenly exploded into the most extraordinary scandal Western media has ever seen. In a matter of hours as revelation after revelation hit the headlines, James Murdoch, prospective heir to his dad’s empire, announced that NoW will be closed down with the loss of 200 jobs. “Wrongdoers turn a good newsroom bad” he said.
Quite right but who are these wrongdoers? Could they be the corporation’s top executives who have been the main instigators of a media culture based on greed, pushing some of their journalists to get stories at any cost including hacking over 4000 phones. Dubbed “Rupergate” by Bob Woodward, the scandal suddenly exploded like a lightening bolt, involving politicians – Prime minister Cameron having hired formed NoW editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications, and keeping close links with his friendship with former NoW editor Rebekah Brooks and the Murdochs –, the Metropolitan Police – now launching an inquiry into alleged bribes of police officers by NoW –, the Press Complaint Commission, the main regulatory body, and News Corporation Executives.
The decision to close the paper is the more staggering given that it is still the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in the English-speaking world, selling 2.66 million copies each week. Founded 168 years ago with the words “Our motto is the truth, our practice is fearless advocacy of the truth”, its really formula “Crime, sensation, vice” proved an unstoppable winner. NoW has also built a reputation as a campaigning newspaper sometimes raising millions for just causes from his readers.
Most commentators could not predict that Rupert Murdoch would move so quickly to hang out his newspaper to dry which was received with deep skepticism. It was seen by some as a commercial move to deflect the exodus of advertisers unwilling to risk public anger if they continue being associated with the paper and pulling their contracts. It was also seen as a move to relaunch a replacement phenix, perhaps the Sun on Sunday (complementing his other successful daily), to keep his market share and the brand. Most importantly it could be just a maneuvre to keep open his options over acquiring 60% of TV company BSkyB, currently being considered by the government, which he desperately want to protect from being tarnished by the phone-hacking debacle. Sacrificing journalists in order to protect top executives, including former NoW editor Rebecca Brooks, is interpreted as a move to shield his son James, and preventing other parts of the empire from becoming toxic.
This crisis will run for days, if not week, throwing up the threat of government over-regulation of a free press. Although this scandal was unraveled by a determined bunch of Guardian journalists pushing the investigation during the last two years, already some politicians are using this scandal to tar all journalists with the same brush, giving ammunitions to those who would wish to find an excuse to stamp down on genuine investigative journalism. There will be two official enquiries set by government, one into the conduct of the original police investigation, and one into the future of the media and its regulation.
This is less a crisis of journalism than a crisis over media control and accountability. The IFJ union in the UK, the National Union of Journalists, has been arguing for some time for alternative forms of media ownership, more accountable, less obsessed with narrow profiteering and that fully respect union rights. Since the Wapping strike in the 1980s, Murdoch has kept unions out of his firm and set up and financed a company union NISA that has proved incapable of dealing with these challenges. The NUJ is stepping its recruitment campaign and calling for recognition so that journalists can have a true voice. Only strong unions can effectively combat overbearing and unethical managements and enforce our code of conduct.
More importantly, public inquiries, no matter how important they may unravel the moral and ethical abyss at the heart of the Murdoch’s operation at NoW, may not change much. What is needed right now is a proper debate and inquiry into media ownership in general, in the interests of plurality and the interests of media workers and the public.