Ian Burrell: Forget the principle. This is all part of the Murdoch masterplan

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The News of the World pulled off some carefully executed stings in the 168 years it has been titillating its readers but few have been achieved with such ruthless and clinical efficiency as that performed on the title itself by its once proud owner.

A national institution that began life as a scandal sheet offering "All the Intelligence of the Week" was made defunct with a statement out of the blue that none of the staff on Britain's biggest Sunday tabloid had seen coming. As the news from James Murdoch began to circulate, that his father had decided to expunge the first British national newspaper that he had come to own, bought back in 1969, there was open weeping even from hardened hacks.

But the shock hadn't subsided before observers began to smell a rat. Rumours began to circulate that the newspaper was merely to be replaced by a seven-day operation from its sister paper The Sun. News International has been exploring integration of its titles, recently appointing a managing editor, Richard Caseby, to work across both titles. Subbing roles have also been integrated.

Since the start of the economic recession, the News of the World, which has ceased to be the advertising cash cow that it once was, has struggled to attract clients, making £35m advertising revenue a year when once it generated £60m. Circulation figures have fallen to 2.6 million, although the £1 cover price means its sales revenue is much greater than that of The Sun. Nonetheless, in a digital future there are great advantages to having one brand rather than two, especially when one has turned toxic. "There's a severe dose of expediency here," commented one News of the World figure last night.

Another senior News International journalist said Rebekah Brooks was regarded as a "hypocrite" by staff, many of whom had once worked alongside her. "People who woke up this morning hoping she would survive because she's a good journalist, now feel she's sacrificed however many jobs just to save one, her own. It's morally repugnant."

For Rupert Murdoch, the idea of saving Ms Brooks, one of his most admired News Corp executives, will be a bonus in a decision for which he can no doubt also make a powerful business case.

Advertisers said last night that it was unthinkable that News International would allow its presses to lie idle on a Sunday rather than publish a tabloid. But if The Sun is to appear on Sunday newsstands in the place where the News of the World was once piled high, News International runs the risk of contaminating its most valuable brand of all with a scandal that is not going to disappear, not while the police investigation into hacking continues and while characters who act as lightning rods for the story continue to work in the organisation.

Rupert Murdoch may have killed off the News of the World but that famous newspaper may not be the last casualty in one of the saddest episodes in British newspaper history.

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