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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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.