My late father was an avid reader of the News of the World, the British Sunday tabloid currently making headlines in a phone-hacking scandal.
“I like it for the sport,” Dad used to explain, eliciting titters from the rest of the family, who knew better.
For what Dad and the (then) millions of fellow NoW readers really got off on was the smut – typically courtroom stories about ‘intimate acts’ observed through keyholes by cleaning ladies. The stories were not very graphic by today’s standards. “What allegedly took place between the vicar and the verger’s wife in the vestry after evensong was described yesterday at Bristol Assizes,” was about as close as the paper usually came to describing such naughty goings-on.
Still, the paper carried page after page of such stuff, the headlines unwavering in their tone of righteous disapproval. You know the kind: “REVEALED: THE SHAMED SCOUTMASTER AND HIS SECRET BOYS HAREM”
Not for nothing did the paper acquire its proud soubriquet, the News of the Screws.
The NoW has come a long way since those far-off days of giggly, behind-the-shed titillation. And of course society is so much less prudish than of yore. With pornography freely available – and free – on the internet, prudery is easily satisfied. To compete with the diverse attractions of visual media, pornographic or otherwise, newspapers have been forced to adopt more sophisticated reporting methods, and to cover a broader range of topics than dodgy vicars and scoutmasters.
Hence the NoW’s switch from reporting second-hand courtroom accounts of keyhole-peeping to acquiring first-hand scoops from telephone-hacking. What once drove its reporters to expose readers to the shameful sexual peccadilloes of people in positions of low authority has been switched to uncovering the scandalous behaviour of people in high places. (Whether so-called celebrities live in high places or low is debatable.)
One thing about the NoW has not changed: the patently cynical and contrived stance of moral indignation remains intact.
The NoW’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is perfectly happy with that. It is a prescription of which he approves. He did issue a statement yesterday describing the phone-hacking as “deplorable and unacceptable”. I can only respond by borrowing that famous line from the victim of an earlier hypocrisy, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he”.
Murdoch may even have meant what he said. But it may be a wish too far to anticipate a more vigorous condemnation, let alone punitive action against NoW’s feisty, flame-haired editor, Rebekah Brooks (who claimed with a straight face to have been on holiday when the hacking went on). Heads will no doubt roll, but Rebekah’s will probably not be one of them, or at least will be among the last. Murdoch is said to have a soft spot for her, thoroughly in tune with her aggressive approach to newspaper reporting.
Murdoch has always had a soft spot for her kind. We are, after all, talking about the man who once cheerfully admitted that he published newspapers that he would not want his family to read. And the man who once shrugged off criticism of The Sunday Times for printing the fake ‘Hitler Diaries’ with the comment that, while it might have been poor journalism, it was great publicity.
Murdoch’s critics may draw hope from the three per cent decline this week in the share price of NoW’s parent company, News Corp International, apparently in response to the defection of several of the paper’s most prominent advertisers. But there is unlikely to be a prolonged slump; newspapers account for less than 20 per cent of News Corp’s revenue, and NoW contributes a small part of that.
Media observers who, year by year, dutifully scan the horizon for the tiniest speck, the Black Ship of Doom that might portend the collapse of Murdoch’s Evil Empire, are thinking wishfully if they believe that the hacking scandal is it. The News of the World may well soon find itself financially threatened – for any number of reasons, hacking scandal aside, given the parlous state of newspaper publishing these days – but my bet is that Rupert Murdoch will roll on, casting the same baleful shadow across his wretched organization as he always has – and will continue to, for as long as he is physically able.
And, with at least two junior Murdochs waiting to succeed to the throne, probably beyond that.