On the death of a mainstream medium

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It’s an astonishing end to a newspaper that published its first edition in 1843 and grew to become the biggest-circulation English-language weekly newspaper in the world, with a readership averaging close to 7.5 million in 2010.

That newspaper is the News of The World (NoTW). After 168 years of publishing, this Sunday, July 10, is the day when the last edition will be printed and then the paper will be closed.

Part of Rupert Murdoch‘s News International since 1969 (which owns, among other media, Times Group and The Sun in the UK and Dow Jones and Fox News Channel in the USA), the NoTW has been embroiled in a huge and unsavoury scandal that began with the illegal access of the telephone records and voicemails of members of the royal family and celebrities and, in recent years, ordinary people (what everyone is calling “phone hacking”); and, relatedly, bribing officers of the Metropolitan Police. All of this goes back to the early part of this century.

If you just Google the phrase “phone hacking scandal news of the world“, you’ll find an enormous amount of reporting along with commentary and opinion of every political hue, much of it over the past week in particular united in its clear sense of disgust and outrage. One good detailed account of the unfolding scandal is “News of the World phone hacking affair” on Wikipedia.

In recent days, the scandal has grown epicly as revelations seemed to come daily of yet more outrageous allegations. British blue-chip companies who spend millions advertising in NoTW suddenly began backing away and pulling their ads. Questions were being asked in Parliament and people were becoming ever more vocal in their demands that heads must roll at News International.

With Rupert Murdoch publicly backing the News International leadership led by its CEO Rebekah Brooks (who was editor of NoTW during part of the scandal-hit period), you had to wonder what would happen next. The scandal was continuing to grow – it had clearly become a full-blown crisis affecting the reputation of other News International titles in the UK in the minds of advertisers (if not the readers) and the entire Murdoch empire, with additional speculation that the scandal would likely impact Murdoch’s plans to acquire the entirety of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster.

And so, the bombshell news came. Here is the text of the internal announcement (published all over the public media) made to NoTW employees by James Murdoch today:

I have important things to say about the News of the World and the steps we are taking to address the very serious problems that have occurred.

It is only right that you as colleagues at News International are first to hear what I have to say and that you hear it directly from me. So thank you very much for coming here and listening.

You do not need to be told that The News of the World is 168 years old. That it is read by more people than any other English language newspaper. That it has enjoyed support from Britain’s largest advertisers. And that it has a proud history of fighting crime, exposing wrong-doing and regularly setting the news agenda for the nation.

When I tell people why I am proud to be part of News Corporation, I say that our commitment to journalism and a free press is one of the things that sets us apart. Your work is a credit to this.

The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.

The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself.

In 2006, the police focused their investigations on two men. Both went to jail. But the News of the World and News International failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoing that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose.

Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued.

As a result, the News of the World and News International wrongly maintained that these issues were confined to one reporter. We now have voluntarily given evidence to the police that I believe will prove that this was untrue and those who acted wrongly will have to face the consequences.

This was not the only fault.

The paper made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts. This was wrong. The Company paid out-of-court settlements approved by me. I now know that I did not have a complete picture when I did so. This was wrong and is a matter of serious regret.

Currently, there are two major and ongoing police investigations. We are cooperating fully and actively with both. You know that it was News International who voluntarily brought evidence that led to opening Operation Weeting and Operation Elveden. This full cooperation will continue until the Police’s work is done.

We have also admitted liability in civil cases. Already, we have settled a number of prominent cases and set up a Compensation Scheme, with cases to be adjudicated by former High Court judge Sir Charles Gray. Apologising and making amends is the right thing to do.

Inside the Company, we set up a Management and Standards Committee that is working on these issues and that has hired Olswang to examine past failings and recommend systems and practices that over time should become standards for the industry. We have committed to publishing Olswang’s terms of reference and eventual recommendations in a way that is open and transparent.

We have welcomed broad public inquiries into press standards and police practices and will cooperate with them fully.

So, just as I acknowledge we have made mistakes, I hope you and everyone inside and outside the Company will acknowledge that we are doing our utmost to fix them, atone for them, and make sure they never happen again.

Having consulted senior colleagues, I have decided that we must take further decisive action with respect to the paper.

This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World. Colin Myler will edit the final edition of the paper.

In addition, I have decided that all of the News of the World’s revenue this weekend will go to good causes.

While we may never be able to make up for distress that has been caused, the right thing to do is for every penny of the circulation revenue we receive this weekend to go to organisations – many of whom are long-term friends and partners – that improve life in Britain and are devoted to treating others with dignity.

We will run no commercial advertisements this weekend. Any advertising space in this last edition will be donated to causes and charities that wish to expose their good works to our millions of readers.

These are strong measures. They are made humbly and out of respect. I am convinced they are the right thing to do.

Many of you, if not the vast majority of you, are either new to the Company or have had no connection to the News of the World during the years when egregious behaviour occurred.

I can understand how unfair these decisions may feel. Particularly, for colleagues who will leave the Company. Of course, we will communicate next steps in detail and begin appropriate consultations.

You may see these changes as a price loyal staff at the News of the World are paying for the transgressions of others. So please hear me when I say that your good work is a credit to journalism. I do not want the legitimacy of what you do to be compromised by acts of others. I want all journalism at News International to be beyond reproach. I insist that this organisation lives up to the standard of behaviour we expect of others. And, finally, I want you all to know that it is critical that the integrity of every journalist who has played fairly is restored.

Thank you for listening.

While the announcement late afternoon today of the closure of the NoTW comes as quite a shock,  it’s actually a good and just decision. I believe it demonstrates quite clearly that the owners of the NoTW are listening to what people are saying and taking serious note of highly critical and exceptionally angry public opinion and sentiment, and acting in a decisive manner that directly addresses and responds to those concerns.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that this means things have come to a nice conclusion. On the contrary, police investigations continue and no doubt criminal charges will eventually be brought as and when individuals are identified who, it will be alleged, committed criminal acts. I would image civil lawsuits will be in there somewhere as well.

Cynics might say that this closure is a stunt to enable News International to continue NoTW under a different guise, maybe “The Sunday Sun” (keep an eye on the website www.sundaysun.co.uk, apparently registered just a couple of days ago). I hope not.

What effect will this have on other mainstream media especially print, in the eyes and minds of the great British public, aka newspaper readers, not to mention advertisers? Will we look on this as a milestone that dealt a severe blow to traditional printed newspapers and trust in journalism, and the opening of a new chapter – an increase in online content and readership – maybe accelerated by the arrival of a new disruptor such as The Huffington Post UK which started publishing yesterday (and let me disclose: I am a blogger for the HuffPost UK).

What a mess and an ignominious end to a newspaper with quite a history. Whatever you think of the paper itself, it was part of the fabric of the history of British journalism and newspaper publishing, done to death by bad people.