Blood, sweat, tears- the cataclysmic downfall of NOTW that now seems to be sucking the rest of News International’s reputation down into the black hole with it is playing out like some sort of gladiatorial arena. The horses have bolted, the palace is on fire, and Rebekah Brooks is thrust forward as a human shield whilst the emperor stands quivering behind.
Thumbs down. Off with her head. We watch with almost pornographic glee as she incites the hate of the nation, forgetting that most probably, legs clamped in the stocks, bearing the tomatoes slung from all corners of the kingdom whilst Mr Murdoch the first and second hold her hand, she is more useful to them now than she ever was as editor.
Meanwhile, the chorus sings of a great tragedy. Two hundred and seventy journalists out of work. A once thriving Whitehall office now so silent you can hear nothing but the wind blowing next to a lone fax machine. The Sun on a Sunday.
Choking back tears we watched in disbelief as the current team march nobly out of NOTW headquarters for the last time, (Oh the injustice!) lamenting the good work they have done, all of which has been forgotten (forgotten!) But what about Sarah’s law? The fake sheikh? That time we caught David Beckam with his pants down??? As the travel features writer put it whilst speaking to camera crews outside the headquarters, ”it is a shame to see the back of, if not the best paper in England, the best paper in the world.”
This is no tragedy. It is a circus. And if we look a little closer we realise that, amongst the hysteria, the mud slinging, the smug prevarications of Ed Miliband, the tables have in fact turned and it is we who have been caught unawares this time. Perhaps an advantage of living abroad as I currently am is hearing the tut-tutting-I-told-you-so-bloody-brits-and-your-vile-papers attitude from those who’ve got wind of the chaos in our green and supposedly pleasant land. As Tim Stanley put it for The Telegraph, ‘The Brits are as infamous for their gutter press as they are for sexual repression and bad teeth.’
Of course for freedom of expression to operate, publications like News of the World and friends must be allowed to exist. The silver lining of brash tabloid exposé is that it keeps checks and balances on those in power. But, as The NOTW saga has shown us, the vital but seedy trade can’t be trusted to keep a check and balance on itself. As much as NOTW holds itself up as a moral vigilante, it is clear that the paper that brought to light, stories which such invaluable benefit to society as ‘Nudist Welfare Man’s Model Wife Fell For The Chinese Hypnotist From The Co-op Bacon Factory’ is all about the buck and less about the bang.
So with heads rolling left right and centre, while we look on smugly as kingpins are (quite rightly) being toppled, it is easy to forget that this is not a sorry tale of a few rogue traders. It is the natural conclusion of the weak control system put in place by our government, one whose boundaries have been, and will continue to be endemically squeezed by corporate heavyweights.
It should be less of a shock that an editor of a lucrative paper whose practices have been long known to be, if not illegal, certainly objectionable, was paying off policemen et al than the fact that she got away with it for over ten years. It is deeply worrying that James Murdoch was able to essentially shut Gordon Taylor up with £700,000 after his phone had been hacked and that the metropolitan police were too busy to investigate adequately. Perhaps most concerning is that we expected the Press Complaints Commission, funded by a levy drawn from these very commercial publications themselves, to be an adequate watchdog. It is not perhaps a surprise that it was aware of misbehaviour in 2009 and yet failed to act.
At every level the paper’s practices slipped through the net. Funny that only now the NOTW has ‘gone toxic’ that politicians have jumped rather gleefully on the bandwagon and dramatic language (reviled, outrage, disgrace) is being bandied about. Ed Miliband in particular is wagging his little finger perhaps a little too triumphantly.
Even Tony Blair told us so: ‘Anyone who has been a political leader in the last four decades knows really that there is this huge debate that should take place about the interaction between the media and politics and the media and public life.’ How then did it have to get to this point before a dialogue was opened?
If we take a step back from the feeding frenzy, we might well realise that objectively, the criminality of British publications falleth not on their head alone. Britain has indelibly, embarrassingly, been caught with its pants down.