WASHINGTON — The British love few things more than the royal family, and one of them may just be a scandal about the royals or maybe the vehicle that has been bringing them such news for 168 years. The News of the World has been catering to the baser instincts of Britons once a week all that time, and being without it may at first seem like missing the finger sandwiches and cakes at teatime. The newspaper put out its last edition over the weekend, the victim of a scandal involving the shocking interception of tweets and twitters and so forth from lords and ladies and just plain folks — all in the interest of dredging up as much dirt as possible. It’s called “hacking” the world over, and some of the staff apparently no longer employed had been doing a lot of it as well as bribing police officers and other authorities to get a jump on the latest bit of scurrilous information.
But don’t despair if you are one of the 2.8 million who regularly subscribed to the largest English-language sheet on Earth. Rupert Murdoch, who may be simply the last of the press lords, and his News Corp. seem ready to shift their agenda to another tabloid in his arsenal of bad taste. A new Sunday edition of the Sun, the tabloid also owned by the company, reportedly is being planned — complete with the famous bare-breasted models on Page 3 that have made it famous on a daily basis for years.
The News of the World was at one time a cornerstone of Murdoch’s empire, which includes the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, the New York Post and the Fox Broadcasting Co., among other things. The saucy tab helped finance Murdoch’s expansion into enterprise after enterprise. But like newspapers everywhere these days, it had suffered severe circulation setbacks. Despite the fact it still sold all those copies, it was a far cry from the 6 million to 7 million it published once a week 40 years ago. The revenues followed the decline.
That being the case, it was easier from a business standpoint to cut the losses and close the doors without doing severe damage to the big corporation’s bottom line. And then there is Murdoch’s $12 billion bid for British Sky Broadcasting, a huge television operation that would become his largest acquisition to date. It needs government approval, and making a good faith effort to correct the indiscretions of a handful of newspaper hacks by throwing them to the wolves they deserve obviously was seen as almost a must under the circumstances.
With a few exceptions, no one ever considered British journalism as the epitome of taste and decorum. The racy tabs have been part of Londoners’ daily diet seemingly forever, and without them the city would seem more than just a bit stuffy with all that stiff-upper-lip culture and class distinction. Murders, mayhem and the sexual machinations of errant government officials were covered with a verve that made our own yellow-tinted exposes look like Bible school tracts.
Only those tabloids one buys at the supermarket checkout here come close, and much of what they put out is relatively boring tripe about movie star marriages and sexcapades. Who-cares stuff, right? Wrong. Judging from the money made by these journals, a whole lot of people do.
There was a time when competing in a crowded field of newspapers in big cities across this nation brought about the kind of irresponsible and unsourced reporting that their London cousins have continued to produce. In fact, yellow journalism was founded in New York by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and even brought about the Spanish-American War.
But as the competition began to thin and more truth-smitten journalists took over, respectability began making inroads and ultimately won the day — with an exception or two.
How far this scandal will go and what, if any, damage Murdoch’s fortunes suffer will be determined by the outcome of the regulatory fight over his hoped-for television bid. (I’m betting on him.) Meanwhile, Brits have other opportunities for feeding their daily desire for juicy tidbits.
— Scripps Howard News Service