BOOK REVIEW / It hates the sinner and loves the sin: The News of the World story - Cyril Bainbridge and Roy Stockdill: HarperCollins, pounds 5.99

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NEARLY a quarter of all Britons read the News of the World each Sunday. Now celebrating its 150th birthday, it has attained the status of a national institution, once said to be 'as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding'. Its weekly diet of celebrities' private lives and vicars running off with choirboys has become essential reading across the whole spectrum of society.

But do you ever see anybody reading it? In fashionable cafes it is de rigueur to turn up for Sunday 'brunch' carrying a massive wad made up of at least two papers chosen from the Sunday Times, Telegraph, Observer and our own Independent on Sunday; at Labour voters' houses you will often find a Mail on Sunday shamelessly open on the kitchen table and maybe even a Sunday People, but it's rare to see anyone reading the so-called News of the Screws publicly.

The NoW has so successfully been woven into the fabric of British society that it has become a part of our collective hypocrisy. We all want to know about the private life of the Royal Family and the kinky carry-ons of saucy Sue, but we don't want to admit it.

So how has this tabloid come to be the institution it is today? Cyril Bainbridge and Roy Stockdill's history of the NoW, commissioned to celebrate its 150th birthday, goes some way towards explaining the phenomenon. But as this is an official history, written by two News International employees to glory the title upon which Rupert Murdoch's empire has been built, the book singularly fails to bring across the flavour of the paper that invented tabloid journalism before tabloids were even a twinkle in Mr Murdoch's eye.

Still, the NoW story is so good that however flatly it is told, it is still a damn good read. Launched by John Browne Bell in 1843 as a weekly digest of police reports, foreign correspondences and legal queries, the NoW soon found a niche in court reporting, particularly breach of marital promise actions and later divorces. The reports in those days were pretty tame by modern standards, but they set the tone for the sort of paper the NoW was to become.

Much of the paper's early success came from foreign reports, covering such events as the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War and the Crimean War. After it was taken over by the Carr family, owners of the Western Mail, in the 1890s, it also gained a reputation for political reporting. Indeed, George (later Lord) Riddell, the lawyer who was chairman of the paper for more than 25 years, became a close confidant of David Lloyd George and was virtually an unofficial member of the Welsh liberal's war cabinet.

Under Riddell and Sir Emsley Carr, who was appointed editor at the age of 24 and stayed in the post for 50 years, the paper tapped into the collective psyche of the country in such a way that, at its peak, the NoW was selling 8 million copies a week. It developed a particular brand of journalism, which criticises the sin it reports while making sure all the details are included.

After Sir Emsley's death in 1941, the paper started losing its way. Family feuds raged in one form or another for more than a quarter of a century, resulting in the sale of the company to Rupert Murdoch, who famously pipped Robert Maxwell in the battle for the title. Under Murdoch the paper has been through a veritable scrum of editors, including Sir Nick Lloyd, who now edits the Daily Express, David Montgomery, now chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers, and Wendy Henry, Fleet Street's first woman editor, who lasted just 16 months in the job.

While the book details the facts of who came and who went, the move to Wapping, and the background to some of the better scoops, it all appears strangely colourless and leaves the reader feeling that something is missing. What happened to the political coverage, for example, and the foreign reporting which was still strong when Sir Emsley died? How has Murdoch's influence changed the title and how much does it contribute to the digger's coffers?

There is a good book to be written about the NoW, a book that might also explain a great deal about the psychology of our society. But this isn't it.