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
Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage