If gossip is a sin, the News of the World was the most sinful of newspapers even before it was exposed in the current scandal. The British Sunday tabloid made its living by revealing the secrets of the famous and the powerful to its four million readers, nonchalantly characterizing them as “scoops”. After its own dirty secrets were revealed, the biggest selling English language newspaper was abruptly sacrificed by its News Corporation owners. One minute the paper was operating as normal; the next it was printing its final edition.
Journalists from the News of the World paid private investigators to illegally hack into the mobile telephones of murder victims, families of British servicemen and celebrities in order to obtain information that could not be acquired lawfully. And it bribed police officers to illegally supply investigative material for exclusive stories.
While most commentators have focused their attacks exclusively on Rupert Murdoch and his empire, history will draw two big lessons here. First, the closure of the News of the World was the moment when print journalists officially became expendable. Rupert Murdoch was prepared to close the News of the World because it scandalized his company at a time when he was bidding to purchase the sixty per cent of BSkyB that he didn’t already control. Under UK law, consummation of this multi-billion investment hinged on the fitness of Mr. Murdoch’s company to be the owner. Ultimately, he withdrew the bid. But the big money is in television. Newspapers are a dying breed. Official.
Still, many in the journalistic profession continue to delude themselves about the value of their output, as if the quality of their prose was in some way related to their net worth. Most print journalists work for loss-making or declining organizations (there are a few exceptions) and their employers subsidize production because of the political power and influence they can wield. Unfortunately, many staff writers (yes, even the most talented ones) are little more than pawns in a far bigger power play.
This leads to the second lesson. Politicians cozy up to newspaper owners, editors and writers because a good public reputation makes them more electable. But the way they do so largely escapes public view. This is now being challenged in the UK through the current Parliamentary hearings, and may lead to changes in attitudes in other countries.
Newspapers cannot guarantee electoral success but the advantage that their support brings still makes them kingmakers. Tony Blair was elected with the backing of News International’s daily tabloid The Sun. In 2010, it switched allegiance to David Cameron’s Conservatives. Newspapers can also make politicians unelectable. In the United States, Senator George Allen of Virginia lost his Congressional seat, and saw his presidential ambitions destroyed, by the Washington Post.
When he was recruited to be Cameron’s press adviser, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson had already been implicated in one phone hacking scandal. Now he faces prosecution and a possible prison term for his part in the News of the World’s illegal news gathering methods. Cameron also attended the wedding of Coulson’s predecessor, Rebekah Brooks, who may go the same way.
In true Casablanca style, Prime Minister Cameron is shocked by what has been going on. But as the resignations mount up – including those of Scotland Yard’s two most senior policemen – it now seems conceivable that the scandal could also cut short his term as UK leader.
Legislators should now take steps to make their dealings with the media more transparent. British Members of Parliament, for example, could expand the Register of Members Financial Interests to include details of all their interactions with news organizations. More broadly, democracy is better served if close relationships within the ruling elite are better understood by the public.