For the Boss, profits mattered to the exclusion of everything else

Last week I was in Scarborough on holiday. Out of curiosity, and for the first (and last) time, I packed the News of the World to take with me. All week its defiant front page stared at me until I finally had a look at it. For this valedictory edition the team had compiled a selection of front pages over the decades. What struck me was the change between 1966 when, among other items on the page, the headline simply said “The World Beaters!” – a reference to our World Cup victory that year – and 1984 when in large black letters the headline proclaimed “Andrew and the Play Girl.” Sex and royalty – a winning combination.

This formula could be varied: sex and violence, sex and celebrity or just sex and sleaze; always an exclusive, always sensational and always in big, black, bold lettering. Much changed in British society over those two decades: the advent of the Pill, a relaxation of social mores, the re-arrangement of state education and the de-skilling of the working class, among other things. But social forces and fashions alone don’t account for the change in tone and tempo of this most popular Sunday newspaper from, for example, the sober headline in September 1939, “Britain Will See It Through”, to the vicarious gloating of “Jacko’s Deathbed” of 2009. The change from an old-fashioned working man’s newspaper, with its assumption of shared moral values to one prepared to hack into the mobile of a murdered child lay in the hands of its proprietor: Rupert Murdoch.

During my holiday I happened to listen to a World Service programme on the scandal of phone-hacking in which an Australian journalist was interviewed. He had known Murdoch for many years and what he said was revealing but not surprising: for Murdoch there was never a general discussion of journalistic principle; it was profits that mattered to the exclusion of anything else. In your annual interview with the Boss, which you naturally dreaded, you were aware of only two things: if sales figures had fallen you needed to look for another job; if they were rising, they were not rising fast enough. It was this Murdoch-dominated culture of profits before anything else – morality, taste, legality, propriety – that led finally to the outrageous activities that we have learnt of only recently.

What would George Orwell have made of it all? I mention this brilliant and prescient writer because on the back page of its final edition, the News of the World smugly highlights his famous words of 1946: “It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war… You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World.” What the modern version of the newspaper has forgotten, or more likely has never grasped, is that Orwell was describing a readership and a newspaper so vastly different from the 2011 variety that they are almost different species – a point made very persuasively in a post by David Lindsay following Fr Lucie-Smith’s own blog on this subject last week.

There are so many apt quotations from Orwell’s incisive pen that can be applied to the News of the World that it is hard to know which to choose: “To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle”: did Rebekah Brooks’s team not notice the implications of their investigative “tactics”? “Power is not a means, it is an end”: I suspect Murdoch always knew this even as he cynically exploited his readers’ emotions. “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions: 1.What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” I doubt this was on public display in the News of the World’s offices.

Journalism, even of the tabloid variety, is, as Orwell knew from the quotation above, a responsible craft; it should not involve a prurient exclusive about the sad life of celebrity-struck Jade Goody or the whipping-up of a vigilante mentality in a so-called “campaign” against paedophilia. Whatever the reason for the News of the World’s sudden demise – and I think it was for reasons of strategy rather than shame – I am glad of it.