When James Murdoch was questioned by the Media, Culture and Sport Committee on 19 July, he said that News International had "no immediate plans" to launch a Sunday title to replace the News of the World. Quick as a flash his father interjected that there was "no guarantee" they would not do so. It is now practically certain that The Sun on Sunday will be launched, and highly probable that this will happen in January.
Having shut down the News of the World, the Murdochs did not wish to be seen acting with unseemly haste. They knew they would launch a new Sunday title, but judged that a six-month wait was advisable before the sackcloth and ashes were binned. What seemed incomprehensible to many at the time – the peremptory closure of a successful newspaper – in fact had a commercial rationale.
Despite selling some 2.8 million copies a week, the News of the World was barely breaking even. It employed 283 people, of whom 160 were journalists. The Sun will need to recruit a fraction of that number to produce a seventh-day edition of the newspaper. If it sells at 50p (half the price of the News of the World, and cheaper than Sunday red-top rivals) it would probably be profitable with a circulation of a million. In the event, it may well sell many more copies than that.
In other words, far from being a sacrifice, shutting down the Sunday red-top and launching a seventh-day edition of The Sun carries a significant economic benefit. The Murdochs were able to represent themselves as acting decisively and almost altruistically – rather as a farmer might regretfully shoot a rabid dog that has been a cherished family pet. Now it turns out that the dog was old, unloved and expensive to keep, and there is a young puppy waiting in the wings which will be a much better proposition. The whole process has been a cynical charade.
Those titles which have hoovered up hundreds of thousands of former News of the World readers, most notably the Sunday Mirror, will see many of them migrating to The Sun on Sunday. Meanwhile Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, faces a conundrum. A couple of months ago it produced dummies for its own Sunday red-top, but did not push the button, partly because the Mail on Sunday at first put on a surprising number of sales. Now most of those have vanished, and Associated may look at the market again. However, as a seventh-day newspaper drawing on existing red-top expertise, The Sun on Sunday would be a powerful player, and Associated would probably be wise to stay away.
It would have been far preferable for almost everyone, excepting the Murdochs, if the News of the World had been decontaminated and cleaned up. The paper's former employees certainly have much to complain about. As they await the publication of The Sun on Sunday, they can be forgiven if they harbour bitterness in their hearts.
Why the Met is turning on the press
The Metropolitan Police appear to have taken leave of their senses in using the Official Secrets Act to seek a court order forcing Guardian reporters to disclose their confidential sources in the phone-hacking affair. They claim the paper may have breached the Act, which supposedly concerns espionage, when it revealed in July that the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. I would have thought that The Guardian should have received an award for this appalling disclosure.
Some people have plausibly suggested that the boys in blue may be trying to get their own back on the paper for its role in illuminating the collusion between them and the News of the World. There may be a further explanation which is far more disquieting. I doubt that six months ago even the muddle-headed Metropolitan Police would have dared dust off the Official Secrets Act in such a case. Since then, of course, the climate has changed because of all the phone-hacking revelations. The entire press is under the microscope, and its power is being questioned. How ironic that The Guardian, which has led the charge during the phone-hacking controversy, should be the first victim of these changed circumstances.
A price rise that hints that print is dead
Is The Guardian conceding that print is dead and its future is digital? I ask because of its decision to increase its Monday to Friday cover price by 20 per cent to £1.20, while its Saturday edition now costs a stonking £2.10.
The paper has lost some 10 per cent of its sales over the past year, and now sells around 250,000. To raise your cover price when circulation is on the slide, and during a time of rapidly falling real incomes, can only have one effect – to accelerate the rate of decline.
I understand, of course, that like all titles The Guardian is suffering from higher newsprint prices and falling advertising revenue. Nevertheless, if its management were really confident that the paper had a future in print form, it would have done almost anything to avoid raising the cover price at such a time. The fact that it hasn't suggests to me either that the management is stupid, which I am reluctant to believe, or that it is no longer frightened by the prospect of a digital-only Guardian.