The last News of the World is out today. Rupert Murdoch hoped that, by closing the title, the phone hacking scandal would go away and his planned takeover of BSkyB could proceed without hinderance. If people believe News International’s claims that the bad behaviour was limited to one part of its organisation, then the furore might die down. The trouble is, most of us don’t.
The phone hacking is bad enough by itself but just as bad, if not worse, are the attempts to cover it up. As the Independent’s Steve Richards says, “the cover-up could have bigger implications than the original offence.” Victims of phone hacking were paid to keep quiet, while journalists and politicians were put under severe pressure to drop their criticisms. James Murdoch has admitted authorising the out-of-court settlements and if allegations of payments to police officers are proven, he could face criminal charges both here and in the US.
That these payments were approved at such a high level is an important point. The phone hacking may have been limited to the News of the World but the attempts to cover it up were a corporate operation. News International directed the activities which aimed to silence the critics. The contrition and claims of betrayal only came once the evidence against the News of the World was overwhelming. Until recently, News International devoted its resources not to the investigating the allegations, as it claimed so loudly last week, but to suppressing the entire story.
This has not gone unnoticed. News International’s reputation has been tarnished by its reaction to the phone hacking affair. Renault and Shop Direct have stopped all advertising with News International while Mumsnet has refused to take advertising from Sky because of its association with Rupert Murdoch. Companies usually base advertising decisions on commercial factors rather than moral objections. If they pull their promotions from all News International publications it is because they believe the entire organisation’s image has become toxic and being associated with it is too high a risk. The attempt to prevent the contagion spreading from the News of the World to other Murdoch owned brands has failed.
While the phone hacking was unethical and, for the families of murder victims and war casualties, downright cruel, buying the silence of victims and other attempts to cover up illegal behaviour are even more sinister. It is News International, not the News of the World, that is in the frame for this. Its senior executives created the culture that led to the phone hacking and they used underhand and possibly illegal tactics to kill the story.
Closing down the News of the World will not get News International off the hook. Its brand is now toxic because its behaviour was toxic. The takeover of BSkyB must now be in serious doubt.