Stealing the story: the death of the News of the World

The News of the World is dead, Rebekah Brooks has so far survived, Andy Coulson has been arrested and the British media is in overdrive, hunting down the next revelation about phone and voicemail hacking, covert surveillance, police bribery and political corruption. That’s the story that’s been obsessing me since it began to break on Monday night, with the Guardian revelation that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by News of the World journalists.

Today the final edition of the 168-year-old News of the World hit the stands, and 200 people woke up without jobs, thanks to the decision by News International on Thursday to close the paper.

Killing the News of the World, along with its many other possible benefits for Rupert Murdoch, is an attempt to grab control of the story back – or at least to dilute it. Suddenly, instead of dissecting past issues of the paper to look for more evidence of illegal (or at least immoral) behaviour, journalists are dissecting the final issue. Instead of the possible guilt of former editors, the result is to introduce a discussion about the relative innocence of Colin Myler and his current staff. [Edit: see also Roy Greenslade’s look at the final edition.]

The gesture also attempts to make martyrs of the newspaper and of its existing journalists.  Suddenly it’s almost churlish to write furious diatribes about the past, when 200 forlorn journalist faces are staring out at you from the last ever newsroom photograph. The urge now is to eulogise, to sum up the 168-year life of the paper – and that means the narrative turns from exposing the illegal and immoral activities that have taken place over the years to a gentler summation of the paper’s life – lauding the good as well as discussing the bad.

It’s a hugely expensive and risky smokescreen to throw in front of a hungry set of journalists, but the result is still to change the terms of the narrative. The focus has shifted.

The political implications of this scandal are immensely complicated and far-reaching, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that the Murdoch empire had an interest in keeping politicians corrupt. If your power rests in part on your ability to unmask corruption – in selectively dishing dirt on those politicians who don’t do what you want – then in fact you have an incentive to ensure that there is a skeleton in everyone’s closet, and that you have the ability to expose it. You have a vested interest in building up the careers of celebrities whose secrets you can use to sell papers. The more corrupt the people at the top – the more dirty secrets you have on the most powerful politicians and policemen – the more control and power you wield.

Thanks to its 2.7m circulation and an estimated readership of about 8m, the News of the World was a kingmaker and a kingbreaker. But those readers won’t just disappear into the ether. The media landscape in the UK is undergoing seismic change not just because of the newspaper closure and the potential damage to other News International titles, but also because we don’t know where those loyal tabloid readers will end up. Presumably a Sunday edition of the Sun would snap them up immediately – so long as it wasn’t dead in the water from the News of the World fallout. But it will be very interesting to see whether the other Sunday papers see a circulation bump in the wake of the death of the Screws – or where the paper’s online readers will migrate to other mainstream titles, or disappear off to celebrity blogs or fragmented new media.

If the mass audience fragments, that could permanently reshape the hierarchy of power in this country in ways that are impossible to predict. We have already seen the power of the network in driving the story forwards. We have already seen a massive shift in power, with politicians openly attacking Rupert Murdoch, a man who seemed untouchable this time last week.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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Somewhere in the middle of all this, I start at the Guardian tomorrow as SEO Subeditor. I don’t know what next week holds but I’m immensely excited to be part of it – sad to leave Citywire, hugely so, but so excited.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

One thought on “Stealing the story: the death of the News of the World”

  1. Interesting analysis Mary – though I suspect this smoke screen will evaporate quickly in the winds of change (judging by today’s headlines, the focus is once again on the Murdochs, BSKYB, and Brooks).

    Murdoch himself helped disperse them when he said he wouldn’t sack Brooks because he didn’t want to throw “innocent” people under a train. This raised the question: how exactly does he judge innocence? Since, by News International’s own accounts, the 200 he threw from the train wreck on Sunday were apparently more innocent than those who had worked at the paper when the crimes took place (which presumably includes the former editor).

    Sadly for the individuals affected it is perhaps a good thing that the NOTW’s passing is already being seen as just another bit of collateral damage in a far bigger war for control of our media (and perhaps our politicians). Good journalists need to put aside sentiment and focus on the very real problems at the heart of this scandal (including alleged bribery of the police, potentially perverting the course of justice, and reports of threats against MPs).

    Hope you thrive at the Guardian – the only paper that seems to have come through this crisis with its reputation for good journalism enhanced.

What do you think?