News of the Screws — screwed

Today's Sunday Express front page, which reads 'NHS Billions sent abroad', complaining about the NHS having to pay for the treatment of Brits abroadIt was with much satisfaction that I learned that the News of the World, the British Sunday tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, was going to publish its final edition today. This happened, for those overseas who didn’t hear, after it emerged that private investigators working for them had illegally accessed the voice-mail of Milly Dowler, a teenager who went missing in 2002 and was found dead six months later. They deleted messages left for her, hoping that others would be able to leave more messages for her and thus leave information for the paper, but it also gave the impression to friends and family that Milly was alive (because she had been able to delete their messages) when she was, in fact, dead. It was revealed that other victims of crime and their families may have been affected, including the Wells and Chapman families whose daughters (Holly and Jessica, respectively) were murdered by a school caretaker in August 2002. This revelation triggered an advertising boycott which led to News International deciding to close the title. (More: Diary of a Benefit Scrounger.)

The phone-hacking scandal had been going on for several years: Glenn Mulcaire (a private investigator) and Clive Goodman (their royal editor) were both jailed in 2007 over intercepting the voice-mail messages of members of the royal family, and it later transpired that various celebrities had been victims of it as well. That ordinary victims of crime and their families, and families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, were victims as well, and that they may have compromised an inquiry into a missing girl, gave the lie to all their claims that they were after villains; clearly, both the villains and the victims were just meat to them. The stench of hypocrisy was obvious, and that is one thing that is difficult to live down in British public life.

It’s been speculated that the News of the World might be replaced by a Sunday version of the Sun, and indeed News International have registered domains relating to a “Sun on Sunday” (it cannot be called the Sunday Sun because that is a Mirror Group-owned north-eastern regional paper). The problem is that they cannot rely on NotW readers simply to jump ship and buy the Sun on Sunday, partly because it would make it too obvious that it was just a rebranding exercise. There are two other strong competitors for the Sunday tabloid market, the Sunday Mirror and the People, which does not publish weekdays. The Sun and the News of the World never were the same paper; editorially, the News of the World always had a more pro-establishment stance than the Sun. The NotW, certainly the last time I read its opinion columns, fawned on politicians and royalty. I remember reading one article titled “What it’s like inside the no. 10 pressure cooker” (during John Major’s premiership) and another giving a very respectful portrait of the Queen on holiday, claiming she was “always on a working holiday”. The Sun was republican (and this is still technically illegal in the UK) and would tear into John Major, especially after 1992, for the slightest misjudgement.

The News of the World cannot be the only paper which could be implicated in this. Surely, other people besides those hired by them knew the tricks needed to access other people’s voice mail. It is particularly interesting that Hugh Grant has had a particularly high profile this past week. A few years ago he successfully sued the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday over their claims about his behaviour around women. After accepting the damages, Grant said, “I am also hoping that this statement in court might remind people that the so-called ‘close friends’ or ‘close sources’ on which these stories claim to be based almost never exist”. What if the “close sources” were people whose messages were intercepted? The Mail would not have wanted to admit, at that point, to intercepting someone else’s voice mail, because it is illegal, and because it would have deprived them of the same trick for future use.

I find the way the other newspapers have crowed about the fall from “grace” of the News of the World quite odd (though perhaps it shouldn’t be). The popular press, and a large chunk of the so-called quality press as well, is a downright cesspit full of propaganda disguised as news, and this goes just as much for the Mail, Express and (to a lesser extent) the Telegraph as the News of the World or the Sun, if not more so. Worse, the propaganda is often directed at the most vulnerable in society, not at politicians or even celebrities: the poor, disabled people and ethnic and religious minorities, portraying them as scroungers who ham up their infirmity to gain benefits, or who receive undeserved, huge amounts in benefits, or as some sort of threat when they are just minding their own business. All too often, the government (particularly the last Labour government) has jumped in fright at a front-page tabloid story, most infamously the “foreign criminals” saga, in which it was suddenly decided that people who had served their sentences years ago should be rounded up and deported on the say-so of the Daily Mail (the Americans passed a law to this effect under Clinton, but it has never been policy here, but the Mail made up a scandal by “discovering” that various foreign citizens had not been deported after the end of their sentences when that was never the intention, particularly as many of them had family in the UK including wives and children).

The press culture in the UK needs to change. The law needs to be used to do this. The tabloids must not be able to operate, as Charles Moore called them in this week’s Spectator, as a “privatised secret police”, setting people up and manufacturing scandals to sell papers. There must be firm sanctions, including the suspension of circulation, for stories which are libellous or which are skewed in ways likely to be damaging to third parties. This does not mean that explicit opinion pieces should be subject to censorship; however, opinion must be presented as such, not as news or as fact. Our popular press is controlled by a handful of large companies, which have an immense amount of power which, they have proven time and again, they have no intention of using responsibly. The problem of political bias must also be tackled; it is to be expected that they should generally support the Tory party, as only someone of wealth can own and run a national newspaper. They are not a “fourth estate”, but a collection of corporations which exist for their own (or rather, their owners’) own purposes, they have too much power, and they must be brought to heel.

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