Finally it died as it has lived: in an explosion of moral piety designed to disguise actions that, in truth, were the expression of the most ruthless and inhuman business judgment. The News of the World, Britain’s most popular newspaper, was closed down today, the victim of its own reprehensibly-won success, and 200 journalists were facing up to the reality that they will need to look for another job.
It was the right thing to do, James Murdoch explained in a written statement. “Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued,” he explained, describing the culture behind the stunning series of crimes that have unfolded into public light this week to put the final cap on the phone-hacking scandal that has dogged his father Rupert’s empire for years. In order to atone for—among other sins—breaking into the voicemails of a murdered girl and deleting them to make room for more, in the process giving her family and friends false hope that she might have yet been alive, Murdoch explained that the proceeds of the final edition would be given to good causes.
“These are strong measures,” he said. “They are made humbly and out of respect. I am convinced they are the right thing to do.”
He did not add that in the process he and his father would be able to carve an opportunity out of a crisis by making the News’s sister paper, the Monday to Saturday Sun, into a seven day operation, with the hope of producing the same revenue with a far smaller staff.
Indeed, saying so would have been out of character; that’s not how things work at the News of the World. At the News of the World, vicious commercial decisions taken with no regard for the fates of the ordinary people who have done no wrong—a murdered girl’s parents, a new and less corrupt generation of News reporters—are routinely dressed up as acts of the greatest nobility.
News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks was once the newspaper’s editor, and arguably the person who bears the most responsibility for its cutthroat culture of utter disregard for the law, or for any kind of ethical code. It was she who was tasked with delivering the official explanation to stunned staffers.
She did so in a brief speech that must have been unlike any delivered to a British newsroom in recent history. According to reports in various rival papers—there are no shortage of talkative sources in that newsroom now—she’d given senior editors just a few minutes notice of the bombshell plan; the mood later, when she finished telling the hoi polloi why they would all lose their jobs because of her (she may have phrased it differently) was, by all accounts, febrile, and Brooks must have been glad of the minders who had accompanied her into the newsroom.
Editor Colin Myler, as unsighted and stunned as anyone else, told her that he wanted to speak to his staff without her present. And then the most powerful woman in British newspapers left the newsroom of her most beloved title, the one she had killed, for the very last time. Inevitably, these being journalists, and this being London, everyone decamped to the pub. “They’re closing down a whole newspaper just to protect one woman’s job,” one unnamed reporter told Reuters afterwards. “There is a feeling of seething anger and pure hatred toward her. People are just in a complete state of shock.”
I work at The Independent, and there too the news was met with total disbelief—a genuinely jawdropping moment, the kind you’re unlikely to experience very often in your working life. The first garbled reports were dismissed (by me, at least) as misunderstandings or typos. And then the sources got more authoritative, and the details more convincing. And we realized it was true. The office dissolved into the kind of frenetic, concentrated activity that must be unique to newsrooms, and must have been found at the News of the World more often than anywhere else.
Every British newspaper, and presumably many American ones, will be plastered with this tomorrow. A story that was once, with a couple of honorable exceptions, dismissed across our press for reasons primarily rooted in self-preservation—a phenomenon I wrote about for CJR’s May/June issue—has by common consent become the most fascinating and dramatic on the British domestic landscape this year.
When the dust has settled, attention will turn to the cold logic that must lie at the heart of the Murdoch plan. It isn’t that hard to figure out, really. Already there have been moves toward integrating the conglomerate’s Sunday and daily titles, and while the loss of the News of the World brand is a body blow, it also made room for what the National Union of Journalists called “an act of utter cynical opportunism” in the sudden cull of so many staff members at once. The assumption is that a Sunday Sun, produced as part of a rolling seven day operation that absorbs a few of those beleaguered hacks, will pick up most of the News of the World’s floating readers, and serve advertisers at a much smaller cost.
Will this work? I guess I hope so, because I don’t want to see even more journalists out of a job. Still, there would be a certain moral satisfaction in seeing the scheme flounder, and I suspect that this is what will ultimately happen.
The great irony of the News of The World’s fate is that the shortcut of phone hacking was so attractive precisely because the paper thrived on the most expensive kind of journalism: the getting of significant scoops, often involving the cultivation of sources over many months, high-tech equipment, wild goose chases to the other side of the world, and of course (and rather less impressively) the payment of considerable sums of money to helpful people. That kind of work requires a dedicated staff, not one seventh of a wider operation more interested in the overall bottom line.
Since the News of the World never had a real heart, people only really bought it for its exclusives, stories that made people feel like they had to know what was going on. Without these scoops, its successor will surely fail. If it does, and if she is still at News International, perhaps Rebekah Brooks will finally get her comeuppance.
In a way, it would be fitting if her fall were to come for base commercial reasons, and not for the outrageous ethical breaches that occurred on her watch. That way, at least the News of the World would have a legacy befitting its life.