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.

One of the tragedies of the current News of the World scandal (which, for once, seems too mild a word) is the law of unintended consequences.

I have argued many times on this blog for outside regulation of the media – particularly the printed press. Repeated intrusion, misrepresentation and other infringements seemed to stem from a sense of unaccountability and invincibility on the part of some journalists and editors. I have questioned the professional self-respect of some journalists in relation to what they refer to as their ‘craft’. I have failed to understand why the press can demand external regulation for (for example) MPs – who surely cannot be trusted to behave ethically in respect of their expenses – while demanding that they be privileged with internal regulation. So, now we have Rebekkah Brookes & Co. maintaining without a hint of irony that they should be treated differently and be allowed to investigate themselves for ethical failures. Let’s have a minute’s silence to think about that withour either laughing or weeping.

In discussion of these themes I have always listened to the argument of certain journalists who have argued for (a) the need for a free press and (b) the importance for a mature democracy of an independent scrutinising press. I fully agree with both counts.

But, the arguments for self-regulation have been rubbished by journalists themselves. The need for external regulation, an enforcable ethical code and proper redress for ‘victims’ of infringement hardly needs to be argued in the light of this week’s revelations. Maybe, just maybe, the tide has turned and popular tolerance of newspaper scandal has been dimmed.

And the law of unintended consequences? First, we need a free press which takes seriously the vocation to hold power to account and identify (and pursue) the questions most of us don’t think about). Second, all journalists get tarred with the same brush – even if most would rather drink poison than sacrifice their self-respect by working for a paper like the News of the World – and that damages the reputation, standing and professionalism of those who deserve better. (And, before anyone whinges that such tarring is unfair, just look what happens when one dodgy vicar gets the rest of us slagged off as pervy, too.)

Somehow in all this mess we have to protect (or define and promote) the independence and freedom of the press – and affirm their responsibility to play their part in shaping our society. This means journalists dropping the fantasy that they only report or observe; they are players in the game. Maybe the best start to this would be for journalists themselves to take responsibility for establishing the best in journalism and telling the rest of us what standard they are working to.

Because, when all is said and done, journalism is discovering this week what the rest of us have experienced for ever: that those who hold others to account must, themselves, be held to account not only for what they write, but how they write it.

I’m not sure how, but we now need a campaign for good journalism and the promotion of good journalists.

Just a quick break between meetings (of which there are currently shed loads). A quick look at the BBC website:

  • The News of the World story grows seedier by the minute. Not only was Milly Dowler’s phone allegedly hacked, but the parents of the murdered Soham girls have also been visited by police in this respect. And the editor at the time, Rebekkah Brookes, expresses a displeasure lacking the venom with which her paper usually reserves for its targets in public life. Still no resignation – or, as we usually think of it, ‘taking responsibility’?
  • Footballer Rio Ferdinand is in court against an allegedly unfounded story of an extramarital affair in the Sunday Mirror.
  • Two national newspapers are deemed in contempt of court for their reporting on a man who turned out to be completely innocent of the murder of Joanna Yeates. Because he looks a bit odd, he was damned as guilty before being allowed to be proved innocent.
  • Johann Hari recently gave new meaning to the word ‘Independent‘ (of the actualite) when he was alleged to have ‘plagiarised’ on an industrial scale.

Is there a common thread here? Something around the need for accountability? Something about sifting good journalism from the bad by refusing to allow these travesties to continue?

Just one day in July.

Further to the furore over the Sun‘s handling of the Jamie Janes hand-written (by the Prime Minister) letter saga, I can’t quite believe I have just heard what I think I have just heard.

I was driving down the M40 on my way back from Liverpool to Croydon this evening and listening to BBC Radio 4’s PM news programme. Tom Newton Dunn, the new Political Editor of the Sun, was being interviewed by Eddie Mair. In response to the statement that the Sun was trying to deter voters from voting for Gordon Brown in the next General Election, he said this:

I’m not sure we’ve ever said we don’t want people to vote for Gordon Brown. All we do is offer our readers an opinion. We don’t make or break governments. We simply report what happens and give them the benefit of our opinion, if they want to read it.

I propose a minute’s silence for (a) the death of journalistic integrity (at the Sun) and (b) the scornful mockery in this statement of the readers’/electorate’s intelligence.

I got into a lively debate over the Telegraph‘s handling of the MPs’ expenses business – a debate that ended up quite informative and helpful. One of the sticking points, however, was the difference in perception between the ‘reporter’ and the ‘reported on’. I then responded to James Murdoch’s outrageous speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival – especially his assumption that the ‘Market’ is the only god (especially if dominated by him and run in his interests). This latest stuff leads me to ask the following questions and I invite journalists (many of whom have my deep respect) to respond:

  1. Does anyone really still think that newspapers simply “report what happens” dispassionately?
  2. Is it even remotely credible that the Sun would waste a penny of its money publishing a word on anything if its owners and journalists thought they were doing nothing to shape the world, influence debate and change people’s thinking to the extent that they might vote differently?
  3. Would the Sun retain any journalists if all they did was to offer a casual opinion on the events of the day and not seek to change people’s behaviour?
  4. If the Political Editor is right, then why did the Sun go to such lengths to advertise its power of persuasion in previous elections and publicise its change of allegiance for the next election?

And an extra question – riding on the back of the Press Complaints Commission’s latest failure in respect of phone-tapping allegations against the News of the World: when will the profession take the lead from the reluctant MPs and propose outside regulation of the media? (In the ‘expenses’ debate on this blog one of the arguments against MPs was – rightly – that they set their own rules and regulate themselves and that this is intolerable. I asked why the same didn’t apply to journalists. I’m still waiting to hear a cry for justice here.)

Go anywhere outside Britain and ‘our’ red-top tabloids are a source of incredulity and embarrassment in media, political and other circles. Why do we tolerate this rubbish?