News of the World: The factor in the British tabloid’s demise that deserves more attention

News of the World: The factor in the British tabloid's demise that deserves more attention
Photo Credit: Carl Court/AFP
Total Views
The ill-tempered debate over the the downfall of the News of the World has often focused on the crimes committed by some of the British newspaper’s staff. The Crown Prosecution Service’s recent announcement that it would take no further action against companies and journalists accused of phone hacking again stirred such discussions. Yet the end of the hugely popular and successful Sunday title should also be understood another way.

Once the paper’s wrongdoing was in the public domain, the newspaper was very quickly condemned in the court of public opinion and some of its staff subsequently appeared in the courts of law. The newspaper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, shut it down. Its final edition appeared on July 10, 2011.

Buying a copy that day at my local newsagent, I heard a neighbour saying it was “good riddance” – and overdue. As more and more of the NOTW’s excesses were exposed, it was a view then quite widely held – widely, but not universally. That final edition contained praise from a reader (Jeanne Hobson, from Lymington in Hampshire) who was quoted as saying she would “always remember the News of the World for the good things you have brought to light. I’m sad to say goodbye to my Sunday favourite”.

The hardest word

That edition also contained an extract from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “The decline of the English Murder”, in which he pictured his reader’s perfect Sunday afternoon: “You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World.”

Orwell wrote of how murder had changed. Journalism, in our time, has too. That, I argue in a new essay in The News of the World and the British Press, 1843-2011 is one of the ways in which we need to understand the NOTW’s demise.

Laurel Brake and Mark W Turner, who, along with Chandrika Kaul, edited the volume, describe the 19th-century News of the World as having:

A high proportion of news, national and global, including financial and monetary news and expansive parliamentary and court reporting; breadth of entertainment copy including early sports coverage; a distinctively unstinting ‘Literature’ page and theatre reviews.

This was not entirely the kind of content the paper’s 21st-century readers would have expected, although it is interesting to note the NOTW’s pioneering role in sports coverage. Entertainment – in its modern form of celebrity scandal and gossip – endured and came to dominate the paper’s offering. These were the kind of stories where the ability to hack into mobile phones was sometimes to prove just too much of a temptation.

Digital disruption

For if the relative ease with which the voicemail of analogue mobile phones could be listened to illicitly was a gift from technology to the tabloids, it came at a time when much was also being taken away. Technological change also brought ever-wider access to the internet. In the case of the News of the World, the kind of celebrity stories which were one of its strengths were increasingly available online, for free. It was competition which Fleet Street had not foreseen.

This is a factor in the News of the World’s decline which has been overlooked in much of the discussion which accompanied its last days and eventual closure. The paper was shut down as a response to its law-breaking, but the era in which that happened is also significant.

In January 2012, during its coverage of the Leveson Inquiry, The Guardian website headlined “Facebook, Google, Popbitch executives appear” – names which would have sounded like gibberish two decades earlier; and names without which in this decade no full discussion of the news business could take place.

These changes left Fleet Street facing competition to which they were unaccustomed. Proponents of press regulation might argue that the tabloids’ excesses meant tighter controls were necessary. Yet,as their supporters argued, newspapers faced, in the form of online media, competition which was not subject even to the same legal restrictions as they.

So while the demise of the News of the World should on one level be understood as a business decision taken in response to law-breaking, it is important for another reason, too.

Times they are a-changin’

Throughout the history of journalism, those who have succeeded have done so because they understood change, and positioned themselves to take advantage of it. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, who founded the Daily Mail introduced editorial innovations and, in the form of more efficient presses and railways, harnessed new technology to his purpose.

In the Internet age, journalism has often had changed forced upon it. It has responded with varying degrees of success. There have also been failures. Tumbling print circulations and revenues are perhaps the most obvious example.

“Who, what, when, where, why, and how”: any undergraduate journalism student or trainee reporter can list the basic ingredients of a news story. In the case of the News of the World’s decline, the “when” – the moment in journalism history when it happened – deserves more attention than it has so far received.