If you had told me a year ago that the News Of The World would shut down, and News International was refusing to rule out The Sun going the same way, I'd have laughed in your face. Never. Not Rupert Murdoch's pride of joy. Not the two biggest, most fearsome newspapers in the world.
But, after the News of The World was axed in July following revelations that it hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and after James Murdoch, chairman of News International, refused last week to guarantee the future of The Sun should similar allegations arise there, that is the position we now find ourselves in.
The ramifications of Sun reporter Jamie Pyatt's arrest last week are huge. His detention for allegedly paying police officers for stories has the potential to bring down Britain's biggest daily. No longer is alleged criminal activity confined to the NoTW. Senior News International executives are hoping the police inquiry into Pyatt won't engulf The Sun – or, worse, broaden out into phone hacking; they have started an internal investigation to prevent a deeper scrutiny of the paper.
It does not surprise me that the corporation handed over a dossier against Pyatt to the authorities. This, remember, is a company that axed 220 jobs to save the skin of one woman: Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive who resigned days after the NoTW closed.
Pyatt's arrest highlights again the ruthless survival mentality of the Murdoch clan: it is in damage-limitation mode again, as another of its newspapers finds itself in danger of self-combusting.
This ruthlessness was on display last week in the Commons select committee battle of James Murdoch against Colin Myler and Tom Crone. Myler and Crone have given so much to the Murdoch dynasty. Crone was a devoted, and brilliant, lawyer at News International for two decades. He could have earned much more money elsewhere, but chose to remain out of love for the company. Myler, a man loyal to his staff, is said to have taken the post as NoWT editor only to help steady the ship – seemingly as a favour to Rupert Murdoch – when he had no financial or personal need to do so. Yet, in the cut-throat world of News International, these decent men have been sold out by the Murdochs, who are now fighting to save their own reputations.
Hearing what is happening at The Sun newsroom brings back memories of the weeks and months before the NoTW shut down. Now, as then, there is a desperate backs-to-the-wall mentality among staff as management attempts to shake off the paper's negative past and seems prepared to offer up sacrificial lambs to protect the company.
Even the excuse being churned out by senior management to journalists, whose past work is being scrutinised in minute detail, is similar: "If we don't co-operate, the police will come in anyway, using search warrants."
It is the same spiel they used when the NoTW was in its final throes. It failed to work then, and the fear is that it won't work this time. I should know – I was one of the innocent journalists who lost their jobs: we were treated like common criminals during that astonishing week last July.
On the surface, staff at The Sun remain full of bravado. "It'll never happen," one told me. "Can you imagine a Britain without The Sun?" But in the days before the NoTW shut down, before the Dowler revelations, we too felt invincible. "How can they possibly shut a great British institution like the NoTW?" we asked each other. Well they can, and they did.
The brutal truth is that none of Murdoch's papers is safe. Sure, he loves the print media. He bought The Sun in 1969 and turned it into a tabloid juggernaut. But you do not become a multi-billionaire mogul on sentiment. And James Murdoch has no affection for newspapers. He is far more business-like and sees The Sun for what it is: a tiny part of a gigantic news operation. As such, he will have no qualms in killing it off if it starts to damage the rest of the company.
My friends at The Sun talk of a paralysis preventing them doing the great work which saw the paper become by far the most successful daily in the country. This isn't helped by the threat that any reporter caught breaching the Bribery Act, by paying sources who have picked up stories from their workplaces, will be handed over to police and suspended until the case is resolved.
Sun journalists are furious, and nervous, about what is happening to their beloved paper – and they have every right to be. Not only have they seen a valued colleague arrested, they feel the company is punishing people for doing what was once demanded – getting the story at all costs. Again, I know how they feel.
The News International hierarchy created an atmosphere where journalists knew defeat was not an option. This encouraged the law-breaking that was first exposed at the NoTW. But to hang those same journalists out to dry to save the company leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who remain. I really feel for them. Working under the scrutiny and intense pressure of a police investigation, as I did for three years, is exhausting.
I only hope that, unlike the NoTW, The Sun manages to survive. Because I firmly believe the paper still has an important role to play in British society, and its team of brilliant journalists – many of whom I am lucky to count as close friends – are a fantastic bunch who deserve to be treated better by News International.
Tom Latchem was a journalist on the 'News of The World' from 2008 to 2011
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