So, the News of the Screws is closing. I doubt if there will be a great deal of sadness around. But, two questions arise:
First, despite the language of contrition used by James Murdoch, is this anything more than a brutal business decision to protect a brand (News International)? This is the man who stated without embarrassment at the 2009 Edinburgh Television Festival that the only value that matters is profit. I have critiqued that value system elsewhere. The language of contrition appears to hide what is a simple brand/business decision and we will need to wait and see what sort of beast replaces the NOTW in the News International stable.
Second, I cannot remember a time when the tabloids did not call instantly for the head of a government minister who presided – wittingly or unwittingly – over some misdemeanour in his or her department. The buck stops at the top. Why is it different at News International? Is this not a matter of principle rather than personality? James Murdoch’s defence of Rebekkah Brookes is breathtaking in its arrogance. Were she simply the current Chief Executive at a time of criminal revelation, that would be serious enough. Were she top dog of an organisation in which people misled her (and her bosses) over the extent of criminal and corrupt activity in her business, she would at least be guilty of rank incompetence – not having an appropriate grip over her employees. On both counts she could expect to go. But, having been in charge of the NOTW when all this stuff was going on, it is inconceivable that she can remain. She admits ignorance (and, therefore, incompetence) and the price to be paid is that 200 other people lose their job.
While writing this David Cameron has cut Andy Coulson loose and announced two inquiries: one into the hacking business and one into how to clean up the press. Why has it taken until now for the impotence of the Press Complaints Commission to be recognised? Why until now for the scandalous behaviour of unaccountable tabloids to be stopped?
This is obviously a tough moment for Cameron himself and one that raises questions about his personal judgement in respect of what has influenced his decisions regarding Rupert Murdoch, Rebekkah Brookes and Andy Coulson. Loyalty is noble, but the Prime Minister’s primary loyalty is to the people and the rule of law – not to friends. If you have to ask someone if they are criminal, it is probably not very wise to employ them anyway.
If there is one lesson to be learned from all of this it is probably a simple one: expediency will always be called to account eventually.
I only hope that this mucky business sets good journalists free to do their work in a more clearly defined ethical environment and with the renewed confidence of a public that has confidence in their remit.
Closure of the News of the World might be sad for the good people who now work for it, but it isn’t a sad day for British culture or the media in general.