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Will News of the World’s Shuttering Change British Journalism Tactics?

July 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
News Corp. announced Thursday that its tabloid, News of the World, will cease to publish after 168 years, but reports have surfaced that sister publication, The Sun, might publish a Sunday edition in its place. Margaret Warner discusses the phone-hacking scandal responsible for the closure with The Observer's Ned Temko.
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TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: And this afternoon, reports surfaced that the company may be considering replace the Sunday News of the World with another Murdoch publication. Its sister paper, The Sun, published weekly and Saturday, could add a Sunday edition.

For more on all this, we turn to Ned Temko, a writer for The Observer newspaper in London.

And, Ned, welcome back. Thanks for being with us.

So what was the thinking behind this dramatic decision to shut down this very profitable newspaper?

NED TEMKO, The Observer: Well, the best description I have heard this evening is that this is the first newspaper in history to die of shame.

But that’s not strictly true. It was a commercial decision. It was a huge exercise in damage limitation. Advertisements were being pulled. There was some sign that circulation would be under threat. And this was just a dramatic way of attempting, at least, to cut their losses.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it’s been known for years that News of the World used private investigators. Some of them were tapping phones of people. And the British public seemed to have a sort of ho-hum attitude about it. Why did it suddenly turn on them that week?

NED TEMKO: Well, that’s a great point.

I think they mostly had a ho-hum attitude because the victims, until this week, were seen — and, in fact, were — M.P.s, members of Parliament, that is, actors, either rich or influential people. And there wasn’t a huge resonance in the pubs and on the playgrounds and elsewhere in Britain of sympathy for these guys.

But when it got to the point where the family or, indeed, the victim herself, Milly Dowler, this poor 13-year-old girl who was abducted, the parents of two children who were abducted in Soham, near Cambridge, the families of terror victims, of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, this raised it to a whole different level.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what sorts of stories did these investigators who passed the information on to the newspaper, what sort of stories did all this hacking produce?

NED TEMKO: Well, in the case of celebrities, it was tittle-tattle, but it’s the kind of thing that sold newspapers.

You have got to remember, the News of the World, although now was selling far less, like all newspapers, than it was in the ’60s, when Murdoch bought it, was still selling 2.8 million copies a week. And a lot of its fare was basically celebrity gossip. And no better way to get it, it appears, than to listen in on voice mail messages for the people you’re reporting about.

MARGARET WARNER: But then average people, what did they get out of those?

NED TEMKO: I mean, basically, I can’t judge, because, needless to say, I have never done it. But one could only imagine, in the case, for instance, of the terror victims in — on July 7, 2005, initially, there was huge confusion. A lot of people were missing.

The details of just what damage was caused, how many victims was still very much up in the air. And I could only imagine that, by tapping in on these voice mail messages, they hoped to hear from the police, from medical authorities and others what they were saying privately to the families of those who were missing.

MARGARET WARNER: Now…

NED TEMKO: It was basically lazy journalism. And it was a shortcut to basically asking sources and getting the facts.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the most sinister subjects to come out of these leaks is that the police and even Scotland Yard had been compromised in some respects by News of the World.

NED TEMKO: Yes, that’s true.

And, certainly, the police…

MARGARET WARNER: And how so?

NED TEMKO: Well, the police seemed to accept this allegation.

And the allegation is that, routinely, the News of the World was paying at least some police officers at Scotland Yard, which is the London police force, presumably for information. The open question and the one that could be immensely damaging politically is whether there was any connection between these alleged payments and the fact that an earlier police inquiry into this some years ago was so anemic.

It basically exonerated everybody involved, and it took the initial word of News International executives that this was just a rogue reporter and one investigator, and it wasn’t a practice that was widespread, something that is clearly not true now.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about other newspapers? I noticed in the debate yesterday in Parliament, some M.P.s were not only tarring Murdoch, but all the British press, for using — quote — “similar tactics.”

Do they?

NED TEMKO: Well, I think the answer is, we don’t know.

But one of the two inquiries that the government seems minded to set up will look into practices across the media industry. And I think it’s widely accepted that, if not phone hacking, there are practices that, particularly in the United States, would be seen as very close to the edge, if not over the edge.

For instance, the News of the World, in addition to this phone hacking, routinely had reporters basically masquerade as, in some cases, Arab sheiks, businessmen to basically entrap people into doing something that was embarrassing or even potentially illegal. And that was kind of a stock in trade.

And I don’t think that was limited to News of the World. But, obviously, one of the things this inquiry — inquiry will try to look into is how widespread it was.

MARGARET WARNER: And then back to Murdoch. It was — attacks on him came from M.P.s of both parties yesterday. One, that is a — is that a big turnabout?

And, two, what do you think or what are people you are talking to say this whole thing may mean for Murdoch and his empire, not only there, but elsewhere, the U.S., worldwide?

NED TEMKO: Well, first of all, it is a huge turnaround, less so in the case of the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, because, after all, he’s not likely to be prime minister any time soon.

But it is a huge change, in that the pattern over the last 10 to 15 years is that all major political party leaders have been kind of competing to woo Murdoch and his titles, on the assumption that if you want to get into number 10 Downing Street, you better have him on your side.

Now, I think that was beginning to wane, but it has certainly changed now. As for what it means for Murdoch, the main immediate concern he will have is another pending decision about an application for his company to take over full ownership, as you said in your piece, of BSkyB. That’s Sky Broadcasting here.

That decision was supposed to be taken this week. It’s been announced just hours ago that it’s now been kicked into the long grass, and it will be decided, at the earliest, in September.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. And, as I understand it, BSkyB’s revenues are a lot bigger than News of the World.

Well, Ned Temko from The Observer in London, thank you very much.

NED TEMKO: Thank you.