Britain's long-simmering newspaper scandal erupted with startling force Thursday, abruptly ending one of the best-known brands in journalism, bruising the world's most powerful media mogul and embarrassing the Prime Minister.
Rupert Murdoch is closing News of the World, the biggest-selling British newspaper, after relentless attacks unleashed by politicians and advertisers threatened to sink the media baron’s commercial interests in Britain and tarnish his reputation worldwide. The Sunday-only paper, with a circulation of 2.7-million, will publish its last edition on Sunday after a 168-year run.
The closing of the paper came amid a barrage of new revelations in the five-year-old phone-hacking saga that made News of the World synonymous with sleaze, corruption and insensitivity. Dozens of big-name advertisers, from Ford to British government agencies, said they would yank advertising from the paper.
Rival newspapers reported that Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who surfaced as the communications director for Prime Minister David Cameron, was to be arrested. Mr. Coulson, who resigned from Mr. Cameron’s staff early this year as the scandal picked up momentum, has always denied any knowledge of the phone hacking.
Among other revelations, the paper is alleged to have intercepted the voice mail messages of a teenager who disappeared in March, 2002, and was found dead six months later. Some of the messages were deleted and the phone activity may have given her parents the false hope that their daughter was alive. It may also have interfered with a criminal probe into the murder.
Police are probing 4,000 suspected cases of such phone hacking by News of the World journalists. Mobile phones that belonged to other murder victims and relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are said to be part of the investigation. The police, in turn, are being investigated for allegedly taking £100,000 in bribes from the paper’s reporters in exchange for stories and tips.
As the steady drip of shocking revelations horrified Britons, the Prime Minister pledged to launch independent public inquiries into the scandal. “It’s absolutely disgusting what has taken place,” Mr. Cameron said during question period in Parliament Wednesday.
Rupert Murdoch’s son James broke the news about the paper’s imminent demise on Thursday afternoon at the headquarters of News Corp.’s British subsidiary, News International. After praising the employees (most of whom were not working at the News of the World when hacking was most prevalent) for their good work and fine investigative journalism, he detailed a litany of wrong-doing by the paper during the height of the phone-hacking campaign, between 2002 and 2007.
“The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company,” he said. “Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued.”
The News of the World was Rupert Murdoch’s first British paper. He bought it in 1968, when it had a circulation of more than six million, and used its gusher of profits to help finance the purchase of other Fleet Street papers, including The Times and The Sun, as well as the broadcasting empire that would eventually dwarf his newspaper division.
The closing of the paper left Britons and politicians wondering whether the Murdochs were doing more than killing off a toxic property as an act of contrition. Some said it could be a cynical – but brilliant – business move designed to reduce the political obstacles to the News Corp.’s proposed purchase of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), Britain’s biggest satellite-TV company, and eliminate staff.
There was widespread speculation that the News of the World would be replaced by a Sunday edition of Mr. Murdoch’s Monday-Saturday Sun tabloid. If that were to happen, the News of the World brand would disappear, but no gap would be left in the Monday-thru-Sunday portfolio of Murdoch tabloids.
“They can just relaunch next week with The Sun on Sunday,” a former News International journalist noted. “He sacks the [News of the World] staff, rehires the ones he wants – six months of painful merging done in a week.”
Mr. Murdoch seems much more concerned about his bid for BSkyB, which has a stock market value of more than £14-billion, than the fate of his newspapers. News Corp. has been trying to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB it does not already own. The bid went dormant during the regulatory review and the British government recently made it known it would approve the takeover. The approval announcement was expected as early as next week. But this week’s revelations have put enormous pressure on the government to delay or kill the approval.
On Thursday, aides to Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, in effect delayed any clearances until September by saying it would take “several weeks” to go through the 100,000-plus public submissions received on the proposed BSkyB takeover in recent days. The vast majority of the submissions opposed the takeover in yet another reflection of the general disgust with the Murdoch empire.