LONDON, United Kingdom — There have been very few days in British media history to match this one.
When the day began the News of the World phone-hacking scandal had burst, but no one in Britain could have predicted how it would end: The News of the World will cease to exist after Sunday’s edition.
The paper’s former editor and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former chief of communications, Andy Coulson, has been ordered to present himself at a London police station tomorrow. He is expected to be arrested.
The British government’s announcement that it was approving Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB — expected tomorrow — has now been postponed until at least the fall.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, confirmed some officers had received large sums of money to provide information to help the News of the World’s operatives to hack into mobile phones.
And even though the evening shadows are lengthening it is not possible to think that the day’s eruption is over.
The biggest shock is the closing of the 168-year old News of the World. It is shocking in financial terms because the NoW is the most successful paper in Britain. In an age of newspaper decline, the NoW still sells 2.66 million copies every week, or four out of every 10 Sunday papers sold in Britain. By comparison the New York Times sells 1.3 million copies every Sunday.
The profits generated by the NoW and the weekday tabloid the Sun allow Murdoch to publish his quality papers, The Times and The Sunday Times, both of which make losses. News International, News Corp’s British subsidiary, will take a hit on its balance sheet because of this.
It’s a shock culturally because the NoW, or News of the Screws as everyone calls it has, for better or worse, been an essential expression of British life for decades. Its salacious gossip balanced with an unerring insight into the thoughts of the man or woman in the street gave it a presence in the national conversation that no other Sunday paper has.
This drove many to distraction, especially those whose private lives were turned over by the paper, but a lot of people in Britain loved the Screws. Many saw it as naughty fun — and occasionally it did expose corruption even if it used slightly questionable means to do so.
It was only in the 72 hours that it was revealed that NoW reporters may have invaded the privacy of the families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan or relatives of those killed in the terrorist atrocity of 7/7. And with those revelations came widespread revulsion at the paper’s practices. Major British businesses pulled their advertising from the paper. The Royal British Legion, the main veterans’ organization, announced it was would no longer sponsor an award with the paper.
In an extraordinary interview, James Murdoch, heir apparent to Rupert Murdoch as head of News Corp, acknowledged the paper “had betrayed the trust of its readers” and that’s why it had to close.
Two hundred journalists, almost all of whom did not work at the paper when the hacking was going on, will lose their jobs with three months severance.
But cynicism attaches itself easily to the business enterprises of News Corp and within minutes of the announcement reports were circulating that Murdoch was planning to launch a Sunday edition of the Sun. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that an unknown person has registered the domain names, SunonSunday.com and SunonSunday.co.uk, in the last 48 hours.
Another piece of cynicism relates to News International’s chief executive Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the NoW when the phone-hacking took place.
Brooks, a close friend of both Prime Minister Cameron and James Murdoch, was not fired. Reports say she offered her resignation last night. It was refused. Many close observers say she is being kept on to protect Murdoch should the intensifying police investigation begin to reach him. James Murdoch has already acknowledged buying the silence of some phone-hacking victims while at the same time denying he knew the extent of what was going on at the NoW. The old “what did he know and when did he know it?” question that dogged Richard Nixon during Watergate now hovers over Rupert Murdoch’s heir apparent.
The elder Murdoch was not in London yesterday, he was in Idaho at the annual Charles Allen media mogul get together. He told a posse of reporters he had no comment on events in London. But he has to be concerned about the fate of his bid to take over full control of BSkyB. It is estimated the broadcaster, in which News Corp has a 39 percent stake, could yield potential profits of $1 billion for News Corp. He wants it badly, he was certain he would get it, and now he may not.
As for Andy Coulson, not only is he likely to be arrested in London, he may have to go to Glasgow at some point to face perjury charges. He testified in a criminal case that he had no knowledge of the paper paying police officers. If it turns out he did have such knowledge — and there were large sums being paid out while he was in charge — then he will probably be indicted.
The effect of the Coulson arrest on David Cameron can not be gauged yet. But it is a serious knock on his judgment that he hired the former editor.
Look for more on this tomorrow and the days to come. It was only a newspaper that was killed off today. There will be more corpses — metaphorically speaking — wheeled into the morgue before this is finished.