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The closure of the Sun? Be careful what you wish for

The most likely buyer for the Sun and NoW is Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers.

When red-top journalists wail about intimidation and getting things out of proportion, you need, to borrow Oscar Wilde's phrase, a heart of stone not to laugh. Following the arrests of Sun journalists on suspicion of bribing public officials, the paper's associate editor Trevor Kavanagh complains that, in what tabloids call dawn swoops, "wives and children have been humiliated" and "love letters and entirely private documents" examined. The victims have no recourse except to "the so-called Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is notoriously reluctant to rule against police".

Well, diddums. If you want examples of the care that red-top papers take over the wives and children of people who are thought guilty of something or other (often it's just being on TV a lot) and of how scrupulously they ignore anything "entirely private", you could choose evidence to the Leveson inquiry almost at random. True, reporters don't put suspects in cells or rip up floorboards - except in metaphorical senses - but they would if they could. And if the victims want to assess the chances of redress, they need only change "police" to "press" in the Kavanagh sentence above to assess their chances.

That is what makes the phone-hacking affair, now spreading into email-hacking, bribery and corruption, so delicious. Murdoch's papers are reduced to pleading defences they normally mock: that individual cases make bad law, that people are innocent until proven guilty, that things aren't always as simple as they seem.

Knacker's yard

It is a tabloid axiom - and a broadsheet axiom, come to that - that a cover-up causes far more trouble than the original offence. If the behaviour of senior Murdoch executives had not, as a high court judge put it last month, raised "compelling questions" about whether they "concealed, told lies, actively tried to get off", the police investigation would not now be so extensive or heavy-handed. Richard Littlejohn, the former Sun columnist now at the Daily Mail, complains that journalists were "dragged from their beds at weekends . . . like violent armed robbers or drug dealers". But their
employer, News Group Newspapers, recently agreed to pay damages to civil litigants "as if" allegations that evidence had been destroyed were true. The police, particularly after their initially dilatory investigations into hacking, couldn't risk giving suspects the opportunity to tamper with more evidence.

Yet if they had been less credulous about News Group's claims that hacking was confined to a single "rogue reporter", it is doubtful that anybody would have raised questions about relations between police and journalists, and whether corrupt payments were involved. Kavanagh argues that paying for information is "standard procedure". He's right at least about the tabloids, and the best journalism - even journalism unquestionably in the public interest - has always come from reporters who flirt with legal boundaries.

The point he misses is that the collective mendacity of News International, its papers' vindictiveness towards critics, and its executives' intimacy with sources of political power have forced (or, perhaps, allowed) the authorities to apply the full rigour of the law. Rather like Colonel Gaddafi and his henchmen, Murdoch and the likes of Rebekah Brooks must now be treated all the more brutally because ministers and senior police officers once embraced them as close allies.

Who will be next to get an early call from Inspector Knacker? Call this Wapping-gate and, for once, the overworked suffix may be justified. The trail could yet lead to the very top; it is already within sniffing distance of James Murdoch who, if nothing else, seems to have been careless about reading important emails. But his father may have cause to be thankful that, preoccupied by his US interests and particularly his purchase of the Wall Street Journal, he wasn't closely involved while the hacking scandal was bubbling to the surface.

And he may be best advised to keep his distance. Murdoch Sr, for all his ruthlessness, has a sentimental streak. He loves printed newspapers, particularly in their tabloid form. But his insistence on staying in the British market, where growth prospects are zero, has long been the despair of his shareholders and his American executives, most of whom regard the UK as a remote outpost of civilisation, of somewhat lesser importance than, say, Taiwan. The NoW scandal has already cost Murdoch full control of BSkyB, denying him unlimited access to annual revenues of nearly £7bn and to profits worth around ten times those generated by the Sun. Now the Sun scandal threatens not only his 40 per cent of BSkyB - Ofcom could yet rule that he is not "a fit and proper" owner - but also his empire's heartland in the US. Corrupt payments to foreign officials are illegal under US law and the FBI is on the trail.

Toxic brand

Murdoch closed the NoW with reluctance, but the almost inevitable conclusion of this long-running scandal is that he sells both the Sun and the NoW (the title of which he still owns). Freed of the toxicity of their association with Murdoch, they might be worth around £1bn. The fate of the Times and Sunday Times is anyone's guess. Perhaps, as Michael Wolff, Murdoch's most recent biographer, has suggested, he could endow an independent trust to keep them going. That would at least provide a dignified conclusion to Murdoch's 43-year career as a British newspaper proprietor.

Should we then open the champagne? Perhaps, but we should remember that the most likely buyer for the Sun and NoW is Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers, who told Leveson that he didn't know what ethics meant. If, as is possible but unlikely, no buyer is found, readers won't be switching to the Guardian or even, in many cases, the Mirror. The only papers left with the capacity to frighten politicians through the force of their disapproval - rather than through what they disclose by honest journalistic endeavour - would be the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister, headed by the stern, unyielding figure of Paul Dacre. An anxiety to protect his wider interests ensured a degree of flexibility in Murdoch's opinions. Dacre is under no such inhibitions. Be careful what you wish for.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?