The News of the World Effect

By Nishit Morsawala

A few months ago, nobody would had concurred that 5m loyal readers would be left without their favourite Sunday paper.

The closing of a 168-year old News of the World (NotW) that reportedly made Rupert Murdoch’s News International (NI) £130m a year in advertising and circulation revenue has much more than financial ramifications, and, dare it be said, bigger than the BSkyB hullaballoo.

Around 280 innocent (i.e. not involved in the phone hacking) journalists are out of a job, the complicity of the Metropolitan Police in dealing with NotW journalists has been shamefully exposed, and the end of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), long regarded to be toothless and not very effective, is near. There is more to the Murdoch-bashing by the Guardians and Daily Telegraphs of the British press, rather the pontifications by David Cameron and Ed Miliband alike.

Of course, nobody would have foreseen the disgraceful fall of the paper, amid political scandal and social upheaval. Nor could anybody forecast the unbelievable amount of introspective and external scrutiny that is going to hang over the British press in the years to come.

The NotW’s swansong could not be more different from the British media that we’ve long upheld as a free, fair journalistic institution. An epitaph that reads bribery of the police forces, privacy infringements and, political aggression rarely seen hardly reminisces the laudability of a free press.

Already this has shown in the changes in perception of British media across the world; American media are describing the British press as “in shambles”, while reiterating the failure of the PCC in maintaining “basic standards” to keep in check “Britain’s randy, rambunctious tabloid press”, while other publications are referring to the NotW as “scandal-ridden”.

This is more than the ruthlessness of the Murdochs or the failure of regulators. The freedom of the press, and the lack of any sort of ethics in journalistic practice – now seen as a consequence of this freedom – is called into question.

Innate hostility to NI also means that illegal methods used by other newspapers have attracted much less attention than they warrant, ironic considering the the ripple effect across the debate on media standards.

Other dangers also lurk, such as whether a reaction as strong as what we see now could discourage and altogether eliminate future investigations by journalists for good causes. The Daily Telegraph infamously clinched the MPs’ expenses story by paying for a stolen disc – which The Times supposedly refused. Illegalities were then in the public interest. Hacking into a dead girl’s voicemail and obtaining the personal details of an incumbent Chancellor’s life – going so far as to report the medical problems of his newborn child – could only be justifiable if there was some grain of public relevance to it, besides selling copies of a paper.

What should be the concern of the media is the circumstances that brought it to such a stage in the first place. A news empire cannot be singularly responsible for the spectacular failure of Government, policing, the press and society alike to maintain essential ethics and values. This, at a time when Rebekah Brooks says worse revelations about NotW are about to come forth.

A revelation of the swollen, fetid underbelly of popular journalism, fraught with police failure and the dismissal of ethics, is ironically welcome. With the admission by Cameron himself that  “we have all been in this together – the press, politicians and leaders of all parties”, it shows that though News of The World is dead, the scandal will be alive and haunting the press for years – whether in social perception or professional discussion.

Thus, the crisis provides a unique opportunity to revamp the press – clean up the corrupt relationship between its elements and the police – and restore the News of the Worlds’ declaration, “our motto is the truth, our practise is fearless advocacy of the truth”, as it applies to all press services.

Some might say the closure of the News of The World is relatively incomparable to other actions and events that have significantly influenced Britain’s internal and global perception, as well as the parts played by the press – such as its role in the War on Terror, the 2012 London Olympics, or David Cameron’s first year as Prime Minister.

Still, nobody could have foreseen this, a time when the fall of a paper would not only signify the loss of a significant publication but a turning point in the history of the British Press.

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