Leading article: News of the World - gone, but not forgotten

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:25

We do not celebrate the passing of the News of the World. At its best, it was one of the finest newspapers in Britain, with an astonishing record of scoops and entertainment. The Independent on Sunday would wish we enjoyed anything like its sales success. And no one, least of all the staff of another Sunday newspaper, should take pleasure in the sacking of fellow journalists, few of whom were responsible for the excesses that brought the title down.

What is worse is that the closure of the NOTW was unnecessary. If Rebekah Brooks had resigned, the toxicity of the title could have been purged and advertisers might have been won back.

That there needed to be some kind of reckoning, however, is beyond doubt. Elements of the press, and not just at News International, have been out of control. The worst of the phone hacking has (presumably) been reined back since Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were jailed in 2007. But it took the revelation that, in 2002, the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, the murdered 13-year-old, had been hacked and messages deleted to blow the scandal open.

It is almost universally agreed that phone-hacking of this kind, simply trawling for information about people in the news, or their families, is repugnant. It is bad enough when hacking is used as a short cut to easy stories about the private lives of celebrities, but in the Dowler case, the hacker gave false hope to Milly's family and could have jeopardised a police murder investigation. What Ms Brooks meant when she said that there was worse yet to come out we can only shudder to imagine.

The opening up of this hidden underside of popular journalism, and the inquiries into the failure of the original police investigation and, separately, into the ethics of the press, are welcome. Daylight has now been let in on the press, its relations with the police and with politicians. On Friday, the Prime Minister was bold enough to admit, subverting one of his own slogans, that "we have all been in this together – the press, politicians and leaders of all parties". All politicians have held back, for fear of offending media organisations that might support them in elections or shed unwelcome light on their private lives.

This crisis provides an unusual opportunity to deal with the problem. It could be the time to clean up the corrupt relationship between the police and elements of the press. And it could be the chance to replace the Press Complaints Commission, which has never commanded much confidence, with a system of accountability that is independent of both the Government and the newspapers themselves.

Curiously, however, we find ourselves worrying whether the reaction to the hacking scandal might go too far. Some of the influence of Rupert Murdoch on the British media has been baleful, partly because of craven politicians. But the liberal left often refuses to accept that for all his will to dominate he has also added to the pluralism of British journalism. We might not wish otherwise, but without the revolution of print technology and challenge to trade union restrictions instigated by Murdoch and Eddie Shah, this newspaper would probably not exist. Hostility to the Murdochs certainly means that the illegal methods used by other newspapers have attracted much less attention than they deserve.

There is a danger, too, that an overreaction would curb justifiable investigation. The Daily Telegraph, for example, secured the MPs' expenses story by paying for a stolen disc. In that case, what would otherwise be unlawful was in the public interest. Hacking voicemails could be justified if there were good reason to believe that it would expose greater wrongdoing. One of the simplest tests is whether a newspaper is prepared to tell its readers how information was obtained.

Finally, there is a risk that the festival of revulsion pushes politicians towards a privacy law, a law of prior restraint and statutory regulation. Those would, in our view, negate the principle of free expression and must be resisted.

As we bid farewell to the most successful Sunday newspaper in the world, we should celebrate its iconoclastic spirit. While hardly in the same market, we hope that at least some readers of the NOTW will look again at the alternatives.

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