Last week, Rupert Murdoch's News of the World was a phenomenally successful tabloid newspaper in England, with 2.7 million readers. This week, the paper is being shut down after the public learned that the paper hacked the voicemails of ordinary British citizens, including a 13-year old murder victim. Bob talks to the Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade, whose paper has led the coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week bells and whistles as the media slot machine when triple 7's, spilling forth the glittering coin of sex, murder and sleaze, the latter contributed by certain news outlets that will not go nameless.
Meanwhile, accused child killer Casey Anthony is acquitted, sparking outrage in the public and punditocracy. Meanwhile, the hotel maid who accused French Politico Dominic Strauss-Kahn of rape is accused, in turn, of being a prostitute by Rupert Murdoch's New York tabloid The Post. She's suing.
Meanwhile, the most sordid and transgressive of Murdoch's British tabloids, News of the World, transgresses so sordidly that the whole of the United Kingdom is in an uproar. Bob, start there.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, will do. A sleazy scandal of the sort long exploited by News of the World has led Murdoch’s News International to close down News of the World.
WOMAN: What has truly outraged Britain is the allegation that just came out that the News of the World may have hacked into the voicemail of a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It was Britain's worst peacetime act of terrorism that now there are concerns that families of those killed on 7/7 in 2005 were also eavesdropped upon by journalists…
MAN: It had gone from celebrity phone hacking to murdered victim hacking, to bomb victim hacking to soldiers and dead soldiers hacking.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And an arrests in that huge hacking scandal in Britain, the News of the World's former editor and the prime minister’s former aide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The murdered girl's name was Milly Dowler. The gruesome details about how the News of the World listened to and then deleted messages on her voicemail, giving the family false hopes and hampering the police investigation, proved to be the boiling point for this long-simmering scandal.
BOB GARFIELD: The incident triggered advertiser defections and stirrings in a government and public long quiescent about sleazy tabloid tactics and Murdoch's looming presence in British politics and industry. News International's case certainly wasn't helped by rationalizations offered by staffers, such as this one by former News of the World eavesdropper Paul McMullan:
PAUL McMULLAN: Well, I don’t really like the word “hacking” - I mean basically you’re just having a little bit of a listen to someone's messages. And given it’s someone’s messages on their own personal phone, chances are that it’s going to be the truth. And journalists, by and large, are just trying to write the truth.
BOB GARFIELD: Until the Milly Dowler details surfaced, years of sporadic reporting about similar voicemail hacking had barely ruffled the nation, despite the efforts of one paper, the broadsheet Guardian, to hold Murdoch and British officialdom accountable. Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media critic, says his paper was a lonely muckracker.
ROY GREENSLADE: For at least four years the Guardian has plowed a lonely furrow, trying to get people interested in the whole subject of phone hacking, and quite suddenly the public were calling in to radio phone-in shows, they were ringing up the newspaper and abusing the journalists. And it began to reach the point where advertisers was saying, okay, we're gonna pull our ads.
And then in a series of days, almost hourly, we discovered that other murder victim’s parents had been hacked into. We discovered that the victims of the 7/7 bombing had been listened in to. We discovered that soldiers and personnel who’d been killed on active service, that their relatives were having their phones hacked into. This had become a giant shockwave, and it’s in response to that that Rupert Murdoch and his company have taken this dramatic action by closing the newspaper.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, James Murdoch, making this announcement, spun it as taking the high road, as having been so appalled by the conduct of his employees that he had no choice but to shut down the discredited newspaper.
What he didn't discuss was what Murdoch's company was trying to preserve by taking this extraordinary action. There is a lot at stake for News Corp., no?
ROY GREENSLADE: Well, it was strange that this should have broken on the very week when Rupert Murdoch expecting the British government to give him leave to obtain the 61 percent of the satellite TV broadcast company BSkyB, that he has been desperate to get hold of. So the general view is that this is a wholly ruthless and cynical act, to close a newspaper, to shut down the argument, as it were, to seal the company off, in order to ensure that his bid for the broadcaster goes ahead.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, American tabloids tend to be more populistic and, and sensational than broad sheets, but when we're discussing British tabs, it's hard to find a comparison of any kind on this side of the ocean. Even The National Enquirer next to the News of the World just oozes with gravitas.
ROY GREENSLADE: Certainly, since the News of the World adopted a tabloid shape, which was in 1984, it has grown year by year more and more sleazy and sordid, with pictures of semi- naked women, sometimes naked women, stories of a very, very questionable nature, celebrities talking about the most intimate details of their sex lives. It has been one squalid mess for a long time, and it has done that against the background of ever-falling sales.
Back in 1950, the paper was selling 8.4 million copies an issue, making it probably the best-selling newspaper in the world. By last month that was down to 2.6 million, which is still a lot of papers, it has to be said, still made it the Sunday market leader.
I think one of the interesting things is that in many ways the News of the World’s style of journalism was already on the back foot. The encroachment of laws to protect privacy and the tightening of laws to prevent many of the activities, the methods that the News of the World had got up to, were already impinging on its style of journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Rupert Murdoch is a tycoon here, but in the U.K. he is a press baron in the sense that we have long since ceased to see in our country.
ROY GREENSLADE: You'd have to go back to William Randolph Hearst really to get a sense of what Rupert Murdoch means in the British political world. He is thought to be somebody who can deliver votes and, therefore, skew how elections turn out. Prime ministers have made it a habit to cozy up to Rupert Murdoch. Those political leaders that have got on the wrong side of him have found that they have suffered his wrath, and it is generally accepted that at least one major general election was lost by the Labor leader because of the way he was treated by Murdoch’s papers.
He uses his political skills in order to obtain business advantages, and then he uses his business, and his business is the media, in order to gain political leverage.
BOB GARFIELD: A virtuous circle minus perhaps only virtue. Yet, all it wants, after more than three decades of this kind of relationship with the institutions of power, it seems like those institutions have coalesced almost as one to turn on Murdoch. You know, it reminds me of nothing so much as the Arab spring. Is he Hosni Mubarak?
ROY GREENSLADE: The really odd thing about this is that Rupert Murdoch has not, until virtually this week, throughout his whole career in Britain, he has not being a demon king. The media elite, the political elite have paid court to him and taken him very seriously, but the public as a whole have not known much about him.
But this week the worm has turned. And, of course, you know, politicians are very quick to feel the pulse of the public during what amounts to really is a feeding frenzy. And so, suddenly Murdoch’s old friends, or at least people that have not bothered to speak up about him in the past, have turned on him in a way that he can least have expected.
He has suddenly gone from being Uncle Rupert to being Demon Rupert.
BOB GARFIELD: But what about the rest? They have a lot to answer for. Are parliamentarians, as Prime Minister Cameron, are – is Scotland Yard suddenly at pains to explain why they have been so in Murdoch’s thrall?
ROY GREENSLADE: Oh, I think we've got lots of questions. He’s tried to would draw the line under this affair by closing the newspaper, but all it’s going to do is raise yet more questions, questions about the relationships between Murdoch’s senior executives and Murdoch himself and the prime minister and the prime minis – and the people around the prime minister. It’s only to raise important questions about the relationships between his journalists and the metropolitan police who have failed to carry out proper investigations in the past.
And so, I think that we are very on the verge of seeing a great turnaround in the way that Murdoch is treated by the authorities, by the institutions, because the public are not going to forget what has happened. This is really impinged on the public consciousness like no other media event I can remember.
I just want to get across really in a sense how unprecedented this is. A newspaper has been closed, while still making a profit, while still being the market leader and while still employing a full staff. I mean, it is a really incredible turn of events. And I've been stretching my mind back into history and cannot – cannot see that it has ever happened before.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, the empire has long since disintegrated, the Beatles broke up. Now the News of the World is closing. Whatever could be next, the monarchy?
ROY GREENSLADE: [LAUGHS] I'd like to think so because I happen to be a Republican, but I think the monarchy has been saved by the glamorous newly married prince and his wife who seem to have given it a new lease of life.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, thank God for that. Roy, thank you so much.
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ROY GREENSLADE: Thank you, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Roy Greenslade comments on the media for the Guardian and is a professor of journalism at City University, London