Rupert Murdoch's decision to close the 168-year-old News of the World certainly takes one's breath away. For a moment one is tempted to marvel at the media tycoon's decisiveness. Despite inexorably losing sales over the past couple of decades, the title is still Britain's highest selling newspaper, and profitable. To shut such an operation seems a very big deal indeed.
But it actually isn't – except for those who will lose their jobs. The paper's closure after next Sunday is a piece of corporate window dressing designed to persuade us that News International is at long last taking the phone hacking scandal seriously, and that Murdoch should be allowed to proceed with the acquisition of the whole of BSkyB. We would do better to ask ourselves: what exactly has changed?
It is a fair bet that in a matter of weeks, News International will launch a paper called The Sun on Sunday, appealing to readers of the News of the World. The internet domain name for such a title was registered by persons unknown only two days ago.
What looks like an act of commercial self-sacrifice may turn out to be no more than an inconvenience to the company. News International's decision to give all the revenues of next Sunday's final issue to "good causes" is piece of calculated piety intended to make it appear caring.
My scepticism goes deeper. In his announcement to staff yesterday, the company's British head, James Murdoch, spoke as though the News of the World were a separate entity from News International. He rightly said the paper had behaved abominably, and had "made statements to Parliament without it being in the full possession of the facts" – ie it lied.
But the News of the World is part of News International, and all its rampant illegal practices, and the subsequent cover-up, are ultimately the responsibility of Rupert and James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks, its chief executive.
What they have done is to make a public spectacle of punishing an institution (which they will soon replace with another) while the people responsible for what happened still escape any retribution. The victims are those journalists working for the paper who won't be employed by The Sun on Sunday. Most of these were not working for the News of the World when phone hacking was endemic.
One person who was, of course, is Ms Brooks, editor of the paper when it allegedly deleted messages of the murder victim Milly Dowler and hacked into the mobile phones of some of the families involved in the Soham murder inquiry.
Ms Brooks made a brief and unpopular appearance in front of News of the World journalists yesterday, many of whom are amazed that their jobs should be threatened while she keeps hers.
She is doubly responsible, first as editor of the newspaper when these terrible things were done, and now as chief executive of News International. Yet rather than being required by the company to give an account of her conduct, she is leading its investigation into what went on.
She presided over the News of the World when these wicked practices were commonplace, for which alone she should be asked to walk the plank. Some will find it impossible to believe that she did not know what went on there.
My belief is that Rebekah Brooks will have to go, and that James and even Rupert Murdoch may not be safe. Temporarily closing a newspaper – for that is what this announcement amounts to – should not divert our attention from the main culprits. This is a desperate ploy by a dysfunctional company.
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