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
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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