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News of the World: no reason to celebrate?

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Robin Lustig | 10:49 UK time, Friday, 8 July 2011

So will you be buying a last copy of the News of the World on Sunday? A souvenir, to show to your grand-children: "This is what we used to call a newspaper"?

Maybe not. Maybe you've never bought a copy in your life, and have no intention of starting now. Maybe you're delighted that a tabloid rag (your words, not mine) has finally been forced out of business.

Well, I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm a journalist, and I can never celebrate the death of a newspaper. Yes, of course, the News of the World is guilty of some appalling errors - it has behaved shockingly and it has paid the price.

But, as we pointed out on last night's programme, its record is not all bad. Some of its investigations really were in the public interest, and not just of interest to the public. (A fine distinction, I know, but a crucial one when we start discussing what is and is not a legitimate investigation.)

I'm a former Fleet Street news editor. (Or perhaps, in the style of Alcoholics Anonymous, I should say: "My name is Robin and I am a recovering Fleet Street news editor.")

I never worked for a mass circulation Sunday paper (the one I worked for sold a tiny fraction of the copies the News of the World sells every week) - but I do know a little bit about the pressure to get stories.

So over the past few days, several people have asked me why on earth journalists would even think about trying to hack into the voicemail messages of bereaved military families or missing schoolgirls.

It's quite a simple question to answer. What matters more than anything to reporters is that they get good stories printed in the paper - preferably at the top of the page, even better on the front page.

That makes their editors happy, because it makes the proprietor happy, because it means the paper will sell more copies. As the former information commissioner Richard Thomas put it in his prescient report "What price privacy?", published more than five years ago: "Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell."

Do newspaper readers want to read about tragedy and heartbreak? Do they lap up heartrending tales of grief and suffering? You know the answer as well as I do.

(And if you don't believe me, just look at the numbers. Biggest selling newspaper in the UK? News of the World.)

I sometimes liken journalists to undertakers. They both perform an essential task, but the detail of how they do it does not always make pleasant reading. If journalists break the law (and hacking into people's voicemail messages is illegal, just as paying a police officer to disclose information is), then they face prosecution. And a jury will decide whether what they did was in the public interest.

There will now be enormous pressure on the press to clean up their act and strengthen the monitoring of their behaviour. It would not in the least surprise me if the Press Complaints Commission, which two years ago concluded that there was nothing much to worry about in the phone-hacking allegations ("the Commission could not help but conclude that the Guardian's stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given") is now quietly put out of its misery.

In a statement on Wednesday, it admitted that "it can no longer stand by its 2009 report on phone hacking and the assertions made in it." But if it is replaced, you'd better be prepared for many months of anguished debate about the correct balance to be struck between press freedom and the right to privacy.

Ed Miliband called in a speech this morning for the Commission to be replaced by something with much sharper teeth. Trouble is it's a very slippery slope from a system of regulation that includes the power to impose sanctions to a system of government licensing of newspapers.

As the former chairman of the PCC, Sir Christpher Meyer, commented: "If Ed Miliband wants a press watchdog to be able to take evidence on oath, and have police powers of investigation, that's state not self-regulation."

If it comes to a choice between entrusting our freedoms to government or to newspapers, I am sometimes reminded of Thomas Jefferson: "If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Let the debate begin.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Comments on Robin Lustig report on News of the World. Regarding your comment, on whether to have newspapers that government can controlled, I do agree with your choice. I do prefer the newspapers ruling than politicians! Ed Miliband is just an opportunist as this has been his only “big” chance to have a saying ...he lacks experience!

  • Comment number 2.

    The real story isn't that they got caught, but that the NoW & others were able to do this for so long. Stories about buying off the police, obtaining phone information etc has been spread for decades & everybody seemed to turn a blind eye to it.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm not celebrating. I feel that something important has been lost, but it's not called "hacking". As we all know hacking is an invasion of privacy, and none of us would want the experience.
    So what is the real problem here? Isn't it the need to to get a good story, the pressure for headlines?
    If you think I have defined the problem correctly, what's the solution? I'm sorry I don't have the answer, but maybe you do - with your news background; or maybe in spite of getting caught, some news people will continue to hack because they - like me - cannot think of a better way NOT to hack & still finish on top.

  • Comment number 4.

    A lot of the people now expressing their disgust at the turn the phone hacking scandal has taken have only themselves to look to. If you have bought the News of the World, or any other Murdoch paper, you are partly culpable! They would not sink to such depths if they did not find a large and willing audience to consume the information they turn up. You may not have broken the law but you cannot now come over all holier than thou if you've eagerly scanned the paper to find out new scurrilous or shocking twists in an ongoing news story.
    I can only hope that the NoW's last edition has a sales figure of approximately zero. What can you gain from giving those last few pennies to Murdoch and his law-breaking cronies? I recommend the Observer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Britons have precious little to praise with their printed media, apart from a couple of weekly magazines, they are mostly dished-up only local and British ´news´.

    The international coverage deficiency reduces most of Britain to being ´an Island of the uninformed´

    --as long as the ´´SUN´ never sets on the British Empire´ -- most Brits will be thankfully satisfied.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sun Jul 10, 2011: Final News of the World issue hits newsstands
    News of the World tabloid Newspaper Editor, Colin Myler poses with the front page of the last edition as he leads his staff out of the headquarters of News International, the publisher of News of the World newspaper, in London, Saturday, July 9, 2011. Britons are snapping up the last edition of Britain's bestselling Sunday tabloid News of the World, after the 168-year-old muckraking paper was brought down in a phone-hacking scandals.
    The 8,674th edition apologizes to readers for letting them down, saying "quite simply we lost our way" and acknowledging that "phones were hacked."
    It seems an honorable ending for a tabloid that quite simply lost its way and found its moral compass too late.
    (The last edition included a 48-page souvenir pullout and quotes from George Orwell on the back page.)

  • Comment number 7.

    Rupert Murdoch will arrive in London to deal with crisis which appears to have swallowed his British newspapers business
    British police arrested Andy Coulson on Friday - former spokesperson for Cameron who had resigned as News of the World editor in 2007 after one of his reporters & private investigator were convicted of hacking aides to the royal family. Coulson was later released on bail until October. Asked if he was being made a scapegoat for the scandal, he told reporters: "I can't say any more at this stage. There's a lot I'd like to say, but I can't."
    After years of allegations about hacking the voicemail of celebrities & politicians, the scandal reached tipping point when it was alleged that in 2002 the paper had listened to the voicemail of Milly Dowler, even deleted some of her messages to make way for more. The claim, & allegations that a growing list of victims included Britain's war dead & the families of those killed in the 2005 London transport bombings, outraged readers.
    Murdoch is bidding to takeover British satellite broadcaster BSkyB, and analysts say that deal is jeopardised if British regulators impose tougher rules in response to new concerns around News Corp's dominance in British media. Cameron's opponents on the left want to block the $22bn bid on the grounds it would give Murdoch too much political clout.
    Coulson's arrest by police on suspicion of conspiring forced Cameron to defend his judgment while promising new controls on the British press. In a sign of how the scandal could escalate further, The Guardian newspaper reported on its website that police were investigating evidence an executive at News International may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive in an attempt to obstruct. A spokesperson for News International said the allegation was "rubbish". In his remarks on Friday, Cameron said he took "full responsibility" for his decision to appoint Coulson, who quit the PM's team in January.
    Police also raided another tabloid, the Daily Star, earlier on Friday over allegations of phone hacking. Cameron said politicians of all parties had been in thrall to press barons for decades. The police also face tough questions over why an initial investigation into phone hacking was closed after the convictions of one of the paper's journalists & private investigator in 2007. Detectives are also now looking into payments, in the tens of thousands, by journalists to police.
    The lawyer representing Milly Dowler's family, Mark Lewis, said the press had failed in their duty. It's about truth. And that’s wh

  • Comment number 8.

    How low can British journalism fall ?

    With Murdoch´s propaganda machine claiming fame for the bought News of the World´s scoops on British social injustice and Mafeking ?????

    http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/notw/_news/nolnews_opinion/nolopinion_notwsays/1350172/From-the-romance-of-our-old-hot-metal-presses-right-through-to-the-revolution-of-the-digital-age.html

    To quote--

    "In our first Christmas Eve edition, for example, on December 24, 1843, we reviewed and told the story of a new novel by a writer published just a week earlier: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

    Fortunately we gave it a good review and, like us, it became part of a national heritage. In May 1900, we broke the news of the relief of Mafeking on the same evening details first arrived in London, the only newspaper to do so."

    NOTICE the OUR and WE, -- it never ends !

    http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/notw/public/home/

    The `News of the World´ has been nothing more than the ´news´of the British world --right up to the end.

    "---and like us it became a part of a national heritage"

    --- Good riddens to bad rubbish !

    --- as if British journalism is proud of such self-compliments ?

    --and take them lying down with pride --with little (or no) self-reflection.


  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    If there is to be a review of the media then that should include broadcast media. This is all the more imperative as Labour politicians are widening the scope to television and perhaps they have a point.

    Hacking into people’s telephones is quite disgusting.

    However something that may be even more important is how the political agenda can be hijacked by the media and, in particular broadcast media.

    Front bench politicians are very sensitive to how they are being perceived and what worries me is that reaction by the government of the day to any given story is in proportion to the amount of air time given to that story.

    This is the tail wagging the dog. While the BBC devotes so much time to the NOTW story, so does the government. While the BBC neglects or relegates other issues, so does the government, I suspect; or, who knows, it may even take the opportunity to slip out some ‘bad news’.

    NOTW did terrible things. The reaction to it is even worse, in my view. It exposes how much the political power in the UK has moved away from the People, via Parliament, to the tv and radio studios.

    The problem is that the tv/radio debate includes a few who are invited on the say so of the producer. Those invited to debate in Parliament are invited because the People put them there to represent them.

    In my view a practical step that would bring government and opposition policies back in line with the wishes of the People would be to bring back the 14 day rule that forbids political discussion on broadcast media until 14 days after the issue has been discussed in Parliament. This rule was brought in (at the BBC’s request during World War II) and was removed in the 1950’s (at the BBC’s (and ITN’s) request).

    The BBC originally lobbied for this rule in order to prevent it being hijacked by political interests. Ironically, since the rule has been removed we seen our politics hijacked by broadcasters, with the current blanket coverage being one example.

  • Comment number 11.

    Yes I am celebrating the demise of the Screws. Why should I have any sympathy for these newly unemployed hacks? Where were these hacks, these self-proclaimed champions of working people, when the Coalition announced massive cuts in housing benefit that'll increase the number of homeless families; the cut in working family tax credits and child support; and the cuts in disability allowance of the most disadvantaged members of society?

    These hacks got on their high horse about protecting children in this country from paedophiles, but don't give a damn about the children in other countries that the paper wanted us to bomb the hell out of (like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya).
    -------------------
    The demise of the NotW has opened the can of worms in how our establishment works. All sections of our elite are exposed - politicians, police, Judiciary, other newspapers and broadcasting media amongst others. This has shown democracy to be a sham exercise done every four or so years where we choose between privately educated Oxbridge graduate Tweedledum and the privately educated Oxbridge graduate Tweedledee.

    Our elite need reminding that the ballot box is here to protect them from us and not the other way round. If the ballot box can't produce the change we demand then we'll do it ourselves with the metaphorical help from Guy Fawkes and Madame Guillotine!!

  • Comment number 12.

    A view of what German journalists think of their colleagues and British democracy---

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,773214,00.html

    --should give pause to think.

  • Comment number 13.

    With Liverpool still boycotting Murdoch´s ´SUN after the April 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster headline--

    “The Truth.
    Some fans picked pockets of victims
    Some fans urinated on the brave cops
    Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.”

    Their sales dropped from 200,000 on Merseyside to around 12,000 today.

    -- The boycott is still active and readers frowned upon.

  • Comment number 14.

    Murdoch has been forced to mount a damage limitation campaign.
    In fact, the "Sarah's Law" campaign that named & shamed convicted paedophiles following the murder of 8-year-old Sarah Payne was spearheaded personally by Murdoch's Rebekah Brooks. When confronted with criticism that the campaign encouraged vigilantism & threatened the rule of law she responded that she did not "regret the campaign for one minute".
    But now to News of the World's box of underhanded tricks. News of the World has never supported the cause Palestinians. This is an important note that will certainly remain untouched by any official inquiry into the criminality & immorality that has engulfed his media business. The damage done to the reputation of Palestinian supporters by News International journalists cannot be assessed. Let's just say no there has been no pressure in parliament exerted for keeping the prominent Palestinian peacemaker Sheikh Raed Salah in prison for no good cause. Moreover, it is no coincidence that the handful of British politicians who might once have voiced their concern over Sheikh Salah's ill-conceived arrest have been SILENT. Surely there as another side to this story. The SILENCE has been most conspicuous in the case of leading Liberal Democrats including party leader Nick Clegg, Sarah Teather, Ed Davey & Simon Hughes. Take the case of Sarah Teather - before she became a junior minister to the Murdoch-friendly cabinet hawk Michael Gove; she was an outspoken supporter of the Palestinians. Not only is she now SILENT on Sheikh Salah's plight - a tribute to Murdoch's unbroken grip on government security policy - it must be grating for the many voters who put a tick in the box next to her name. True to form, The Sun adopted a tried & tested smear tactic by juxtaposing moral outrage aimed at Salah - an alleged "hate preacher" - entering Britain unchallenged with an unconnected story about Britain being hindered from deporting "hundreds of foreign killers, terrorists & rapists" by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. This follows the same successful formula adopted against a wide range of Palestinians and Palestinian supporters, especially Muslims, such as the academic Tariq Ramadan & Sheikh Yusef al Qaradawi. Whether low brow tabloids or their upmarket counterparts in the UK, US and Australia, all Murdoch newspapers have a consistent policy of targeting & denigrating active supporters of the Palestinian cause whenever and wherever they can.
    Typically, just days after terrorists inspired or directed by al-Qaeda bombed London in July 2005, The Sun explained to its re

  • Comment number 15.

    Typically, just days after terrorists inspired or directed by al-Qaeda bombed London in July 2005, The Sun explained to its readers how this atrocity was linked to Palestinian resistance by seizing on a planned visit to Britain by the academic Tariq Ramadan. It is worth highlighting extracts from The Sun's front page to remind ourselves of the tabloid style deployed so effectively in support of a global strategy in support of Israel that masquerades as support for Britain and the West:
    "Extremist Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who backs suicide bombings, is to address a London conference part-funded by police...in our bomb-hit capital he is being given a platform to speak - while the victims of Britain's worst terror atrocity wait to be buried".
    Murdoch's tabloids regularly stigmatise Muslim communities in Britain. According to research published last week on the sixth anniversary of the London bombings, the News of the World and The Sun have contributed to the creation of "suspect communities" through reporting that fails to distinguish between terrorists and the communities in which Muslims live.
    Subsequently, it came as no surprise when Galloway joined the long list of phone hacking targets being offered large sums of money by News International in an attempt to silence them - an unlikely ambition in Galloway's case. What Murdoch's tabloids sought to obscure was the reality on the ground. Their portrait of Galloway as an appeaser of terrorists was shown to be well wide of the mark, where he was twice attacked by al-Qaeda for successfully persuading young Muslims to channel their anger against British foreign policy in the Middle East into democratic politics. Not a story that fit with Murdoch's agenda.

  • Comment number 16.

    Failure of another Commission to provide over-sight. Anyone with money (political influence) appears to be able to violate the rights of others without governmental interference. Hacking into personal messages and phone calls draws no attention if politically connected.
    Will you mourn the loss of some terrorist publication as a loss of information to the public?
    Governmental and industry over-sight has become a protection racket not something that protects the public.
    Governments can not be trusted on almost any level...they are owned by their contributors..only voted on by the public but directed by private interests.
    All civilization dies from within.

 

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