Friday, 8 July 2011

Shock, Horror at News of the World

The News of the World (NOTW), the UK tabloid newspaper with a 168 year-old tradition of loving to shock, has produced the biggest one of all - by closing down. James Murdoch, son of News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Deputy COO of the company, announced yesterday that this Sunday will be the last issue of the paper and that all advertising and circulation revenues from that issue would go to charity.
The newspaper has been mired in scandal around the reported hacking of thousands of phone messages of celebrities, politicians and grieving families, and has apparently admitted to bribing the police. Since the phone hacking came to light in 2006 News Corp has clearly taken insufficient action to root out the problems and bring to account those responsible. In a memo to staff Murdoch junior admitted that "The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself." He also added "The company made out-of-court settlements approved by me. I now know that I did not have the complete picture when I did so. This was wrong and is a matter of serious regret."

Shocked staff were told by News International CEO Rebekah Brooks but she took no questions afterwards. Many of the 200 employees will lose their jobs even though most of them didn't work at the paper when the alleged crimes were committed. MP Chris Bryant, who has long been campaigning against News Corp's influence in the UK, said that it was unfair that "those in the boiler room are paying the price when it should be those at the helm." Indeed many see the newspaper's closure as a cynical move to protect senior management and limit the damage to News Corp's proposed takeover of BSkyB which still awaits regulatory approval (but which may now be delayed). There have been many calls for the resignation of Mrs Brooks but she is adamant about staying to steer a course for the company through troubled waters.

The hole created by the demise of the NOTW on Sundays may be filled by The Sun, which had been moving towards a seven day week publishing schedule anyway. But if the public sees this as an enforced re-branding exercise it's unlikely that a high proportion of the 2.6m NOTW readers will simply switch to The Sun. The public in Britain has a long memory and can be slow to forgive - the Sun's sales in Liverpool are still negligible 22 years after a story it published blaming Liverpool fans for being partly responsible for deaths at the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy in which 96 people died in a crush.

The more this thread is pulled, the more is revealed about the extent of this affair. As well as the police being implicated, it is another embarrassment for British politicians who are still reeling from the scandal surrounding the abuse of their expenses process. Former editor of News of the World, Andy Coulson, who resigned over the phone hacking incident, was later hired by Prime Minister David Cameron as a PR advisor. Was this naive or was it handy for Mr Cameron to have someone on the team who had been listening to phone messages of many of Cameron's colleagues? Mr Coulson no longer works for the Government and according to reports on Twitter is being interviewed by police this morning. Mr Cameron is a friend of Rebekah Brooks and has been accused of being too cosy with the Murdoch empire, which wields considerable influence over the voting public. RupertMurdochPR, a Twitter site pretending to be conveying the thoughts of Mr Murdoch tweets "I am sitting at the controls of my earthquake machine David Cameron. Be very fugging careful what you say in the press conference, maggot."

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