Saying farewell to the News of the Screws

That a trashy tabloid was slain by quality investigative journalism is probably fitting. That hundre

The News of the World is gone - for now. The name is tainted and the brand is toxic, but the reappearance of a News International Sunday publication shouldn't be ruled out, if not a Sun on Sunday then something similar. As Roy Greenslade recently revealed, plans were afoot to co-ordinate production between the weekly and daily operations, the kind of merger that is happening all over the shrinking newspaper industry as revenues fall and profits are maximised.

We don't know the whole extent of the phonehacking, or the payments to police, allegations of which have presaged the demise of the 168-year-old newspaper. A person's number in someone's diary is not the same as their voicemail having definitely been hacked, for example. We don't know what the outcome will be of various investigations, inquiries and hearings, including the one overseen by Brooks herself at News International. But people couldn't wait for all that to unfold: they demanded something be done now. If they jumped the gun and jumped to conclusions based on limited evidence, they were only acting the way they had been taught to by the News of the World itself.

"We will be passing our dossier to the police." Those words appeared at the end of News of the World investigations down the years, implying that readers should infer guilt on the part of whichever ne'er-do-well was being investigated that week, their wrongdoings exposed thanks to secret recording or other "dark arts". It created a culture in which an allegation became proof, a culture in which readers were invited to leap to conclusions. If people have done so this week, the News of the World can hardly condemn such behaviour.

This time there is no dossier to be handed to police; there is just a closure of the country's biggest-selling newspaper. In the end, the pressure on advertisers was too much to bear. This wasn't a faux-outrage confined to a few angry liberals on Twitter or Facebook; this was something that genuinely dismayed ordinary people, including the kind of people who might ordinarily buy the News of the World on the weekend, and the kind of corporations who would not want to see their brands associated with such unpleasant allegations as have surfaced over recent months.

So, will it be enough to satisfy those who have been outraged by the revelations of this week? Rebekah Brooks is safely in her position, and Rupert Murdoch's bid for BSkyB remains under consideration, possibly in an even stronger place than before thanks to the corporation having one fewer publication in its portfolio. Will the axeing of one newspaper make everything all right? Was it really just one newspaper doing this, just a couple of people who were up to no good while the senior figures were on holiday on every single occasion?

As far as the future goes, there is now a gap in the market, and somewhere for two million readers to get their sport, celebrity gossip and occasionally news from now that the much-loved 'News of the Screws' (and many people did love it) has been consigned to history. It would be amazing if News International did not put out a publication to fill that void, but how long that will take to happen remains to be seen. Now is the time for readers to embrace quality journalism, if they want it. But will they, and do they? The 'Screws' had the right formula to attract a huge amount of Sunday readers: celebrity kiss and tells, football transfer rumours and the like. It's naive to imagine they'll all start buying the Sunday Telegraph or the Observer, but it's time for the others to step up to the plate. Will the other Sunday papers reach higher, or aim lower?

I have nothing but sympathy for those hardworking journalists who have been consigned to the scrapheap through no fault of their own, almost all of whom are entirely innocent of any of the breaches of ethics alleged to have taken place at the Screws down the years. It's not their fault, and it's a horrible place out there to try and find work at the moment. Perhaps some will find a place at a new News International Sunday publication; but many won't. They will join an ever growing list of redundant journalists on the scrapheap who are fighting for an ever-diminishing pool of jobs.

So perhaps it's not time to rejoice over the demise of this newspaper, but to remember the human cost of the activities which saw the publication so reviled in the public imagination - not just the journalists who have been left without a job, since the vast majority are deserving of sympathy rather than condemnation; but also those victims of the trashy tabloid tactics that saw a once-thriving newspaper turned into public enemy number one. That it should have had its demise hastened by quality investigative journalism is probably fitting.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.