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Thursday, July 07, 2011 

Goodbye, cruel World.

(Yes, I've shamelessly stolen the Telegraph's front page headline. It's just too good not to appropriate it.)

Last Friday, giving in to the curious occasional urge it has to troll its own readers, the Guardian ran a comment piece by Kelvin MacKenzie. Headlined "Thank God for Rupert Murdoch", the former Sun editor sang the praises of his boss, writing how if there were hundreds more like him then "unemployment would be wiped out a stroke".

A week later and Murdoch, for the sake of his son, an editor he's treated like a surrogate daughter and for his bid to control all of BSkyB, has just dumped at best a few dozen and at worst almost two hundred all but blameless workers out on their hides. At first, like others who have commented, I too thought the immediate closing of the News of the Screws was a typically Murdochian masterstroke. As a ruthless act to cut out the cancer which was threatening to metastasise to his three other papers, if it hasn't already, it made and makes something approaching sense. Remove the News of the World and you remove the problem, and regardless of all the current journalists now saying the hacking and everything to do with it was purely the work of the previous regime, the NotW has long been the rogue, loose cannon in Murdoch's stable that needed firmer control, like the Sun under MacKenzie. Mazher Mahmood and Neville Thurlbeck have continued to work under Colin Myler's editorship, along with doubtless others with dubious lines in ethics. The John Higgins and Max Mosley stories have both happened under Myler, for instance.

It also allows the paper to end its 168 years in a fashion it frankly doesn't deserve. With all the advertisers except for around four having deserted it at least temporarily, it was going to be slim in the extreme on Sunday. Freed for the first and only time from carrying adverts, with all the proceeds going to charity, presumably ones willing to accept their tainted cash, it can apologise briefly and then celebrate itself. As the last issue of such a historic if ignoble paper, it immediately becomes a collector's item, helping to undermine the burgeoning boycott campaign. Then a new paper will rise, almost certainly with much the same staff, regardless of what it's called and much will be right again with the world. Whatever money the temporary closure will cost News International (if indeed it costs any overall), it'll probably be less than it would have done as a result of the withdrawal of advertising and sudden massive drop in circulation, even if the latter turned out not to be sustained.

While Murdoch has closed newspapers in the past (few now probably remember much about Today, Eddy Shah's full-colour tabloid which Murdoch bought a year after it was launched. Notably, a certain Rebekah Wade's first job in journalism was working for Shah.) he hasn't done so to one which still has as much life in it as the News of the World did. In these days of brand management and image it's arguable it may have been indelibly tainted by the phone scandal, facing a national boycott campaign comparable to that which the Sun has faced in Liverpool following Hillsbrough, but I'd be willing to be that it wouldn't have lasted. Even if it had, losing say a million sales still wouldn't have been a disaster of terminal proportions: the People limps along on a fraction of the sale it once had. Moreover, there's no guarantee that a Sun on Sunday will reach the same audience as the Screws, nor that those who lose the habit of buying it and instead plump for the Mail or Mirror won't stick with those rather than return to a "new" paper.

The Screws was after all the first paper Murdoch took control of in this country, the one which along with the Sun did more than anything else to help cement his reputation and build the media empire he now bestrides. As Andrew Neil has been saying, more than any other tabloid he owned it epitomised the journalism he has always loved: exposing hypocrisy, taking on and riling the "establishment" and making pots of cash in the process, something it continued to do right up until last Sunday. To sacrifice it in such a brutal fashion he had to have been certain that it was necessary, and reading his son's statement it's clear just what a hole those he trusted to run his UK operations have got him into. Murdoch junior admits that he was the one who authorised the payout to Gordon Taylor amongst others, only he did it without having the "complete picture". This is nonsense. The idea that Murdoch paid out £750,000 of his father's money without knowing full well what he was doing and what he was attempting to prevent coming out is ludicrous. It's only thanks to the dogged determination of Nick Davies and the Guardian that any of what's happened over the last two years has taken place.

This is the fundamental problem: even after two years of lies, deceptions and half-truths, still News International and those who were in charge of the cover-up are unwilling to come completely clean. Being blamed are "wrongdoers who turned a good newsroom bad" and that this was "not fully understood or adequately pursued". Again, this is laughable. As seemed apparent to some of us but which is only now being widely accepted is that the Screws, under Wade/Brooks and especially Coulson, was completely out of control.

In fact, it's not really fair to just single out the Screws: all the tabloids were making use of the "dark arts", using private investigators to blag information from private, police and government databases, hacking phones and doing whatever they could to obtain stories, not just on celebrities and politicians but on almost anyone who happened to come to their attention. Everyone knew about it because almost all of them were doing it, even being encouraged to do it: some legitimate stories which were in the public interest almost certainly were obtained using such methods. The majority were not even close to reaching the standard. Completely forgotten and gone unmentioned all this week is that the tabloids fought a successful battle back in 2008 to stop the government from putting "blagging" offences under the Data Protection Act on the same level of seriousness as breaches of RIPA, under which Goodman and Mulcaire were prosecuted. Paul Dacre even boasted of doing so. The defence, as always, was that it would inhibit good investigative journalism: as this week has exposed, they were doing so to protect themselves.

The truth is that News International as an organisation lied to everyone: those representing the company lied to the police, they lied to parliament, they lied to the media and most of all, they lied to the public. Rebekah Wade had the brass neck to claim it was the Guardian that had done so. They continue to lie now, claiming to have not known what was going on under their noses and that it was only recently they realised just how terrible and deplorable what had gone on had been. Its lies have finally caught up with it, and eventually, it will have to come completely clean. That time is still not now.

Closing the Screws then will not even begin to put an end to this. This cynical act, designed to save both Murdoch junior and Brooks, although it's still unfathomable why they continue to stick by someone who has brought them only trouble and ignominy, will only highlight the deviousness of a family that has wielded far too much power and influence for far too long. Tomorrow's Sun, even though it leads with the demise of its sister publication still has no editorial comment on the scandal, as indicative of anything that underneath the surface, nothing has changed.

What has changed however is the political attitude towards Murdoch, at least temporarily. Yesterday's debate in parliament was clearly a cathartic experience for politicians who have long secretly loathed having to suck up to a man whose only principle is what's good for him and his business is good for everyone. Obvious now is that the News Corp deal for BSkyB cannot possibly go through. At the very least Jeremy Hunt is going to have to delay it; he may yet be forced to refer it to the Competition Commission, depending on the continuing level of public outcry. Ed Miliband has also gone past the point of no return: his call for Brooks to consider her position, which deepened the crisis both for government and NI, means that he cannot expect support from any Murdoch publication unless victory looks absolutely certain in 2015. For the first time in my life being seen as two steps removed from Murdoch could well be a positive rather than a negative.

I doubt however that this will last. This week's events have clearly wounded Murdoch; his judgement has deteriorated massively as he has aged, not least in delegating so much to his son and Brooks. He's had to close down his first love to try to stop further damage to them and to his massively lucrative bid to take full control of Sky. One thing you should never do though is underestimate him, as so many have previously to their detriment. Slowly the memory of the phone hacking debacle will fade; his papers and hangers-on will gradually rewrite it back to being the work of a few lone individuals, regardless of the eventual outcome of any inquiry and NI's new policy of full cooperation with the police. His revenge may be slow in arriving, but it will come. That is what we should now be readying ourselves for.

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