Sunday will be the test for the News of the World

If readers are outraged, the easiest course of action they can take is to stop buying the paper.

Sunday will be the test. Will regular News of the World buyers pick up another paper instead? Will advertisers want to remove their brands from a toxic publication? Or will millions of us - remember, it is in the millions - just carry on regardless?

The allegation that an investigator, paid by the News of the World, hacked into the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, is truly shocking. The further allegation, that messages were deleted to make room for more - giving a family false hope that their daughter might return home safely - is, if true, a thoroughly callous and despicable act.

There is a sense that a line has been crossed this time. The phone-hacking saga was barely of interest beyond the media bubble when it involved politicians, or even celebrities; but this new revelation is truly sickening - sickening for anyone who considers themselves to be a journalist or who cares about the ethics of their profession; and sickening for us as punters, as people who buy newspapers and care about what they produce.

There are times when breaking the law to get a story is justified, and there are times when some behaviour, even if it doesn't break the law, cannot be justified in the context of getting a story. This case, it would appear, is the latter. A police investigation was ongoing, and may potentially have been hampered by the actions of the News of the World's investigator. So who knew what was going on, and who is to blame?

As it stands, we are told that no-one knew that this had happened. And there is no reason to suppose this is not entirely true. But even if this was the 'one bad apple' who took things too far, an investigator who had gone rogue in the quest for new stories, completely outside of the knowledge of every single employee of the News of the World, I do not think that means that no-one there can be held responsible for his actions.

Who knew? We will be asked time and time again. Perhaps a better question is 'Who should have known?' or 'Why was a culture allowed to develop in which this kind of behaviour was seen as justifiable or acceptable?' The editor in charge of the News of the World at the time was Rebekah Brooks, now the chief executive at News International, who says she is as shocked and surprised as anyone.

Those of us who are appalled and dismayed by this latest story must be careful to act responsibly with our understandable anger. If we do not, we run the risk of being no better than the mobs who wrongly targeted innocent citizens after the News of the World released paedophiles' details back in the early 2000s.

That 'naming and shaming' was part of a campaign for 'Sarah's Law', where the newspaper placed itself on the side of victims and their families, demanding justice for those affected by crime. That it should have happened at a time when one family were apparently being given false hope that their daughter was safe, just so that someone working on behalf of the same newspaper could read more harrowing and intensely private messages left from concerned friends and relatives of a missing teenager, puts everything in a new focus. It is a messy, horrible and deeply saddening story.

And it's that humanity, the horrendous ordeal of the Dowler family, which must be kept in mind at all times when discussing this episode. It is at the heart of why this story matters, and it is at the heart of why this does not become a gleeful witch-hunt.

Instead, let the facts speak for themselves. If readers are outraged by the latest allegations, the easiest course of action they can take is to stop buying the paper. We will have to see whether that happens or not, starting this Sunday.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder