I never thought I’d see myself writing this, but the decision to close the ‘News of the World’ is truly terrible.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no liking for the NoW, which has clearly engaged in some disreputable and disgusting activity. But for it to disappear from the landscape is a bit like a rapist and murderer being caught red-handed and then fleeing the country before he comes to trial. No, actually it’s worse than that.
One of the major paradoxes about British society is people’s unwillingness to see just how much power they have over newspapers. If enough people don’t buy them, the newspapers don’t sell and can’t function. We understand our power when it comes to certain consumer boycotts but can’t bring ourselves as a society (I personally don’t buy ‘tabloid’ newspapers) to boycott newspapers.
When Princess Diana was killed in Paris in 1997, the initial reaction was that the paparazzi had hounded her to her death. After a couple of weeks it became clear that this was a somewhat simplistic interpretation of events, yet for the first week or so, that was the perceived wisdom.
So did sales of the newspapers that paid for the paparazzi’s pictures go down? No – they actually went up! We moaned about the malign influence of those beasts in the press, yet we kept feeding them.
One of the most distasteful aspects of the NoW hacking scandal is that it only blew up this week. This issue has been going on for several months, but somehow the victims never registered strongly enough with us for it to become a major story. It’s like we accept that a Premiership footballer or a publicity agent or an actress can have their phones hacked, but once the parents of a murdered schoolgirl or 7/7 victims or soldiers killed in Afghanistan have theirs hacked, then it becomes a scandal, one that brings down a 168-year-old newspaper.
Well, no. Apart from police activity when there is good reason to suspect criminal activity, phone hacking is both illegal and morally wrong, whether it’s a disreputable celebrity or parasitic sportsman whose phone is hacked, or the grieving parents in an awful human tragedy. The NoW scandal was every bit as bad six months ago as it was this past week.
So why has it taken this long to come to crisis? Simple – because people still want to pay a few pence for the news that comes out of phone hacking. The NoW’s sales should have been falling all year, as people refuse to fund the tactics used by the paper to get its stories. But sales have been remarkably solid.
The reason the NoW’s demise is truly terrible is that I suspect this week would have been the first time there would have been something of a consumer boycott. It would have given the whole country a chance to see readers refusing to buy a specific newspaper, and that would perhaps have set a precedent that could be followed.
Whether that was in the back of Rupert and James Murdoch’s mind when they took the decision to close the NoW I have no idea. There are so many elements to this fast-moving story that it’s impossible to keep up. But it’s clear that if a new Sunday emerges from the Murdoch stable to replace the NoW, it will be much harder to associate it with the practices of the departed predecessor.
Nonetheless, in a world where we feel so powerless, this week’s events serve to show that we as a broad mass of the population could have nipped the phone hacking scandal in the bud, simply by refusing to buy papers whose methods of finding stories are clearly below the belt.