LONDON, (Reuters) – In a breathtaking response to a scandal engulfing his media empire, Rupert Murdoch moved today to close down the News of the World, Britain’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper.
As allegations mounted this week that its journalists had hacked the voicemails of thousands of people, from child murder victims to the families of Britain’s war dead, the tabloid had haemorrhaged advertising and alienated millions of readers.
Yet no one, least of all the 168-year-old paper’s staff, was prepared for the drama of a single sentence that will surely go down as one of the most startling turns in the 80-year-old Australian-born press baron’s long and controversial career.
“News International today announces that this Sunday, 10 July 2011, will be the last issue of the News of the World,” read the preamble to a statement from Murdoch’s son James, who heads the British newspaper arm of News Corp .
Hailing a fine muck-raking tradition at the paper, which his father bought in 1969, James Murdoch told its staff that the latest explosion of a long-running scandal over phone hacking by journalists had made the future of the title untenable:
“The good things the News of the World does … have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company. The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself.
“This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World … In addition, I have decided that all of the News of the World’s revenue this weekend will go to good causes.
“We will run no commercial advertisements this weekend.”
Steven Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, said he was “gobsmacked”:
“Talk about a nuclear option,” he told Reuters.
“It will certainly take some of the heat off immediate allegations about journalistic behaviour and phone hacking.”
Tom Watson, a member of parliament from the opposition Labour party who had campaigned for a reckoning from the paper over the phone hacking scandal, said: “This is a victory for decent people up and down the land.
“I say good riddance to the News of the World.”
It was unclear whether the company would produce a replacement title for the lucrative Sunday market, in which, despite difficult times for newspaper circulations, the News of the World is still selling 2.6 million copies a week.
One option, analysts said, might be for its daily sister paper the Sun to extend its coverage to a seventh day.
News of the World journalists were stunned. Anger may be directed at top News International executive and Murdoch confidante Rebekah Brooks, who edited the paper a decade ago during the period of some of the gravest new allegations.
“We didn’t expect it at all. We had no indication. The last week has been tough…none of us have done anything wrong. We thought we were going to weather the storm,” said one News of the World employee who asked not to be named.
The scandal had deepened with claims News of the World hacked the phones of relatives of British soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The military veterans’ association broke off a joint lobbying campaign with the paper and said it might join major brands in pulling its advertising.
The British Legion said it could not campaign with the News of the World on behalf of the families of soldiers “while it stands accused of preying on these same families in the lowest depths of their misery”.
Signalling how far the racy, flag-waving title has alienated a core readership already horrified by suggestions its reporters accessed the voicemails not only of celebrities and politicians, but also of missing children and crime victims, an online boycott petition had garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
The Conservative-led government had already backed a deal for News Corp to buy out the 61 percent of BSkyB it does not already own, and says the two cases are not linked. But U.S. shares in News Corp fell over 5 percent on Wednesday, though they recovered somewhat in a stronger general market today.
Formal approval for the deal had been expected within weeks after the government gave its blessing in principle. But it now seems unlikely for months, although officials denied suggestions that they were delaying a decision because of the scandal.
“The Secretary of State has always been clear that he will take as long as is needed to reach a decision. There is no ‘delay’ since there has been no set timetable for a further announcement,” a government spokesman said. Some British media reported that a decision was now expected in September.
Critics, notably on the left of British politics, say giving Murdoch full control of Sky television would concentrate too much media power in his hands and risk skewing political debate.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed inquiries into the newspaper and into the wider issue of ethics in the cut-throat, and shrinking, news business. Arguments over privacy, free speech and the power of the press have already stirred heated debate this year.
However, critics called Cameron’s move to set up official inquiries a tactic to push the embarrassing affair far into the future. The precise form of those inquiries is still unclear.
Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband has called for the BSkyB deal to be referred to the Competition Commission and said that Brooks, Murdoch’s most senior British newspaper executive, should quit: “The prime minister has a very close relationship with a number of the people involved in this,” said Miliband.
“He should ignore those relationships and come out and say the right thing because that is what the country expects.”
So far, Murdoch has said he will stand by Brooks, 43, who edited the paper from 2000 to 2003, when some of the gravest cases of phone hacking are alleged to have taken place. She is a also a regular guest of the prime minister, and enjoys good relations with previous Labour leaders in power until last year.
Senior politicians from all parties, including Cameron and Miliband, rubbed shoulders with Murdoch, Brooks and other News Corp executives at Murdoch’s exclusive annual summer party last month, underlining the power his organisation wields.
Both Miliband and Cameron chose former News International employees as media advisers, although Cameron’s choice of Andy Coulson, who succeeded Brooks as News of the World editor, has caused the prime minister the more obvious problems.
Coulson quit the paper over the first hacking case in 2007 and went to work as Cameron’s spokesman. He resigned from the prime minister’s office in January as police reopened inquiries.
The main accusations are that journalists, or their hired investigators, took advantage of often limited security on mobile phone voicemail boxes to listen in to messages left for celebrities, politicians or people involved in major stories.
Disclosure that the practice involved victims of crime came when police said a private detective working for the News of the World in 2002 hacked into messages left on the phone of murdered schoolgirl
PROFESSOR IAN HARGREAVES, CARDIFF SCHOOL OF JOURNALIST, MEDIA AND CULTURAL STUDIES
“This is an astonishing and unprecedented act. It is appropriate to the moral horror that the owners of the newspaper faced, but it does not yet answer a number of questions.
“A thorough inquiry is still needed to ensure that we know the extent of these heinous acts. That must include asking the question whether other newspapers have been guilty of similar crimes.
“Killing the paper does not kill the story.”
ADRIAN SANDERS, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT FOR THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS, THE GOVERNMENT’S JUNIOR COALITION PARTNER
“The cynic in me suggests that this is a ploy to take the pressure off the BSkyB merger and that when that is out of the way something will rise from the ashes.
“I hope I’m wrong but the track record of this company and those within it suggests that cynicism is the right response.
“When you do something as dramatic as this, the hope is that people will notice. It is a big gesture and most people will see the headline and think that something has happened — in that sense it will take the pressure off.”
MICHELLE STANISTREET, GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE NATIONAL UNION OF JOURNALISTS
“It’s comes as an incredible shock – the announcement James Murdoch should be making tonight is the dismissal of Rebekah Brooks.”
“It is the people at the top who need to be punished, not ordinary working journalists.”
CLAIRE ENDERS, HEAD OF ENDERS ANALYSIS MEDIA CONSULTANCY
“Our view is that this does not mean the News of the World will be closed. It will simply mean that there will be a seven day Sun. The stain on the brand was going to be permanent, and this is a perfectly sensible decision.”
STEVEN BARNETT, PROFESSOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, WESTMINSTER UNIVERSITY
“Astonishing. I’m completely gobsmacked. Talk about a nuclear option. You’ve got to feel sorry for the people who work on it. There are people who are going to lose their jobs.” “It could just be a fairly cynical ploy and there will be a new News International Sunday newspaper. It could well be that three months down the line the scandal’s calmed down a bit and they launch a new Sunday tabloid.” “It’s a lightning conductor.” “It will certainly take the heat off some of the immediate allegations about journalistic behaviour and phone hacking.” “I suspect that they are fearing the worst in terms of more revelations coming out, and can now turn around and say: ‘What more can we do? We have cut this thing off at the roots.” “Rebekah Brooks is still there and is still appointed by Rupert Murdoch to run the inquiry. That is still untenable. It’s important that we don’t get distracted by this announcement from asking some very serious questions.”
STEPHEN ADAMS, FUND MANAGER AT TOP 10 BSKYB SHAREHOLDER AEGON ASSET MANAGEMENT
“We see it (shutting down News of the World) as something to restore or remedy a tarnished reputation for the News Corp group. But we also critically see it as a reflection of New Corp’s desire to progress the BSkyB bid and have full ownership of the company.”
UNNAMED BANKER ADVISING EUROPEAN MEDIA COMPANIES
“I am very surprised at this, but I still don’t think it is enough for the Sky deal to get through. I think there will still have to be some scalps, including Rebekah Brooks. People are out for blood.”
TOM WATSON, OPPOSITION LABOUR MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT
“Let’s be clear, it’s not Rupert Murdoch that has closed this paper, it is decent families up and down the country who have shown outrage at the revelations that have bombarded this company all week,” Watson told Sky News. “This is a victory for decent people up and down the land and I say good riddance to the News of the World.”