As the smoke lifts from the battlefield after the most tumultuous week in the modern history of the press, it is possible to discern a number of figures, living and dead. There lie the mutilated corpses of Rebekah Brooks and of Murdoch lieutenant Les Hinton, a far more substantial player. Over there is Rupert himself, badly, possibly fatally, wounded, and that staggering, mud-caked man by his side is his son James, who will never lead his father's bedraggled army.
A few onlookers may find this scene affecting; most are exultant. But what of the future of our newspapers? Of individual titles? Pleased as I am to see proud Rebekah humbled, I believe the press as a whole is weaker than it was a week ago. If, as seems quite likely, the tribunal under Lord Justice Leveson recommends statutory regulation of newspapers, that will inhibit high-minded titles as well as the tabloids. Incidentally, those elevated papers which have been making a nice living from the off-cuts of the News of the World will find the board is bare.
Look at individual titles. As an unregenerate lover of newspapers Rupert Murdoch will never willingly sell The Times, Sunday Times and Sun, but he may soon be kicked upstairs by hard-hearted moneymen in New York, for whom these papers are an embarrassment or irrelevance. What then? God knows, I have criticised The Times over the years for dumbing down, but it is still a fine paper, and honest enough to write fearlessly about the Murdoch empire over the past week. Since he acquired it 30 years ago, Mr Murdoch has stoically borne losses running into hundreds of millions of pounds. Whoever picks it up next may be less accommodating than he has been and, believe it or not, less respectable. Ed Miliband, who apparently wants to expel the Murdoch papers from Britain, should take note.
In the short-term, The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Independent may garner a few disgruntled Times readers dismayed by the re-demonisation of Rupert Murdoch. After all, such was the prospectus on which The Independent was launched 25 years ago. But the potential benefits are probably slight. When the fuss has died down, all three titles will still face contracting sales and, in the case of The Guardian and The Independent, very significant losses. By the way, I should apologise to The Guardian for suggesting in November 2009 that it was exaggerating the phone-hacking affair. It was right and I was wrong. And yet I cannot believe its editor, Alan Rusbridger, views the wreckage with serenity.
There is the Daily Mirror, accused by some of indulging in the dark arts of phone hacking. Perhaps Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry will enlighten us. Having lost so many sales over recent years, the paper is in no state to withstand the kind of onslaught experienced by the News of the World. On the other hand, being left-of-centre and Labour-supporting, it may not, if guilty, be subjected to the full vitriol of the chattering classes.
Which brings me to the Daily Mail. In a swirling piece in Saturday's Guardian, Polly Toynbee rejoiced at the disintegration of the Murdoch empire ("Rejoice! Roll on the tumbrils") and ardently wished the same fate on the Mail, which she hates more than anything on earth. I doubt this will happen as a result of phone hacking since the paper's editor, Paul Dacre, has reportedly assured its proprietor, Lord Rothermere, that such practices have not been countenanced. Polly's desire to close down newspapers she does not like seems a shade totalitarian.
Reuters reported last Thursday that the Mail group is planning to launch a Sunday red-top to fill the gap created by the (quite pointless) closure of the News of the World. A new paper possibly called Sunday, and described as "light, breezy and not too sleazy", may appear as soon as next weekend, partly drawing on the resources of Mail Online, which runs many more celebrity stories than the Mail. (Press pundits who declare that the red-top business model is irretrievably broken are probably wrong. Celebrity culture is strengthening.) Murdoch plans to launch a Sunday edition of The Sun to replace the News of the World, but he may feel that to do so soon would invite charges of bad faith.
The Mail group may have stolen a march on him, though given the reduced condition of the Sunday red-top market, in which by far the strongest player, The News of the World, was barely profitable, it seems unlikely that it will make an enormous fortune out of its new venture.
Unlike the Polly Toynbees of this world, I want a strong, pluralist press, with a wide variety of newspapers, many of which do not reflect my point of view, and all of which feel robust enough to stand up to power without fear of over-regulation.
Before the recent travails of the Murdoch empire, falling sales and declining budgets meant that the prospects of such a strong and diverse press were much less certain than they once were. It would be hard to argue, following recent developments, that the lookout for newspapers has improved.
Of course, journalists may have learnt not to overreach themselves, and to obey the law, though I strongly suspect that these were lessons most of them had no need of. After all the sound and fury of the past week, I am left with the following rather grim thoughts.
The assault on the press by the political class and parts of the media is mostly regrettable. The diminution of Murdoch's power is a good thing but his complete exit from this country, and in particular his abandonment of The Times, could well be a bad one. And this great crisis, with its attendant tribunals and name-calling, distracts us from a vital truth – that our supposedly fearsome newspapers are all less buoyant than they were, and many of them are growing ever more feeble.Reuse content