After 168 years of publication, the ‘News of the World’ will close tomorrow. Not because of declining sales – it’s still the UK’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper (and in some reports the World’s biggest seller) – but because Rupert Murdoch deemed it a liability and pulled the plug.
How did it become a liability? If you’ve been in the UK this week, you’d know. There’s hardly been room for any other news. This is a story of phone hacking that went from interesting media story to public firestorm. When the story first broke in 2006 – that News of the World journalists had paid a private investigator to hack into the phones of 4,000 ‘people in the news’ – it was a front page story. The private investigator and the newspaper’s Royal editor were jailed in 2007 and the newspaper assured the world that this was a one-off – a rogue journalist trying to get a scoop on the activities of the famous.
The famous were not amused. Politicians, actors, royals, sports stars and assorted celebs wanted to know if they were on the list. And when they found out – in dribs and drabs via a glacial police investigation – they sued the newspaper. News International tried to manage the affair by settling out of court. It’s estimated they paid out a total of £1 million.
This week the story changed completely when a lawyer for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler told the press that the News of the World had hacked into Milly’s voice mail in 2002 and deleted messages. This was the mobile phone of a then missing schoolgirl. Distraught friends and family had been leaving messages on the missing girl’s phone in the hope that she was alive and would respond. The messages had filled the mailbox. So the private investigator, hoping for some more newsworthy messages, deleted some of the messages to make room for more. This was interpreted by the police, who’d been monitoring the phone, as proof that the missing girl was still alive. Who else could have deleted the messages? Imagine the hope that that information gave to the family.
When this latest news broke, the public were incensed. Before, the reporters had been going after celebs, now it appeared they were going after victims. Within a day, more news broke. The phones of the families of the 7/7 bombing victims had been hacked. And the families of servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And murder victims. It looked like anyone associated with anyone in the news was fair game.
As the public firestorm raged, large companies reacted by withdrawing advertising from the News of the World. Politicians questioned whether News Corp was a fit company to own a stake in British television companies. And the News of the World brand became toxic.
So Rupert Murdoch shut it down.
This story is not going away. Three arrests were made yesterday. And it was alleged that a senior executive authorised payments of tens of thousands of pounds to Met police officers in return for information.
In a way, none of this should be a surprise. We see it all the time in TV series and read it in books. Our hero reporter is always crossing the line. He/she employs a friendly hacker and pays police for that extra bit of info he/she needs to bring the bad guy down. The difference being that our hero only goes after the guilty.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .