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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.