In a desperate attempt to avoid losing his Chief Executive, Rupert Murdoch has called time on a newspaper with a 170-year history behind it. Rebranding and compensating cancelled contracts could cost thousands, while the proceeds from this Sunday’s edition will go to charity. It is unlikely to satisfy the contempt of many people or cause many to mourn its passing, but money is plentiful in the Murdoch empire and offers itself as the easiest solution, just as it caused the problem. Andy Coulson, who edited the paper at the height of its immoral activities, has already stepped out Murdoch’s umbrella of immunity and has had to leave his government job and face arrest. Rebekah Brooks, a target for those with a grudge, but no less implicated in the scandal, particularly as she edited the paper at the time of the Milly Dowler hacking, is so far clinging to Murdoch, to whom she has apparently made herself indispensable.
As appalling as the different incidences of hacking have been, what broke the camels back was the knowledge that £100,000 had been paid to the Metropolitan Police in bribes by payroll staff and 4,000 phones hacked. The scale of the problem by that point had become undeniable, the guilt of the newspapers staff certain and the implication of the senior management impossible to deny (though Brooks has tried). Who else could have sanctioned the payments? How could they not know the sources for some of their biggest stories?
Many of these acts sound criminal and should be investigated by the criminal justice system accordingly. At root, any journalist could have hacked into an answer phone or paid a bribe. The fact that it was done on such a scale inevitably leads to questions about the industry as a whole but it is not easy to assume that there are wider implications. Firstly, much has been said of the financial decline of print journalism. The News of the World, a best-seller, did not have these problems any more so than other papers. True, there is much greater competition for stories, with the proliferation of free papers, gossip magazines and 24-hour news television, not to mention the Internet. Only the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard have successfully bridged the gap between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet the excuse that there are fewer stories out there is hardly valid, given the liberalising effect of Freedom of Information laws.
Above all, the crisis is one of industry standards. The use of freelance journalists and private investigators has meant that the News of the World has been unable to apply consistent and high ethical standards to its work. Newspapers have failed in other areas too (see #interviewsbyHari on Twitter) but none of these scandals has had a comparable impact. The result of this should be that talk of a stronger Press Complaints Commission should become a reality and that the Sun is forced to make good the impact on the reputations of journalists that its sister-paper has had. Just as the BBC has taken self-censoriousness to new levels in the post-Gilligan age and The Times has fought for its vaunted editorial independence, the Sun will have to convince the public that it has more than its own interests at heart.
Questions about whether Rupert Murdoch or the press in general have too much influence will also need to be answered, although they will not be quickly or easily. A few weeks ago, super injunctions had people largely on the side of the newspapers against selective, plutocratic privacy laws. Nor is it a healthy situation when the political classes are in such a violent relationship with the press. But which side gives? In any case, Gordon Brown’s attempt to create a balance by promoting Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail brought no obvious gain and Tony Blair, despite giving the impression of being in thrall to the media, largely steered his own course in policy.
As for Rupert Murdoch, he has limited control over the editorial content of The Times and is likely to lose Sky News. Sky is subject to the not inconsequential competition regulator. Other foreign proprietors have not brought similar difficulties but it is undeniable that like Citizen Kane and Randolph Hearst, Murdoch’s views have often become the story themselves. Moreover, the breadth of his international interests reads like something out of a James Bond film. All the more reason to commend Chris Bryant’s willingness to stand up to his nemesis’ ‘casual violence’ and note the symmetry between attacks on Murdoch’s business empire and the entirely coincidental stories about his own private lift that appeared shortly afterwards.
Thus the politics will take a long time to resolve. In the mean time, the most important step is for heads to roll at News International and in the police force. An example must be set, so that unethical behaviour is never rewarded. Whether the government will be able to bring former News Corporation staff into its employ in the medium term looks doubtful. An Italian style media would be even less desirable than what we currently have, but to effectively uphold political and social standards in public life, the media need standards of their own.