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The News of the World brings out its last issue today after a stormy week for the 168-year old tabloid, the largest-circulation Sunday paper in the UK with a print run of 2.6 million, and an estimated 10 million readers. The alleged hacking of the voicemails of Milly Dowler and Jessica Chapman’s father led to widespread condemnation and disgust, withdrawal of advertising contracts, and a spate of criminal investigations of individuals associated with the paper. It culminated in the announcement of the closure of the paper, and the arrest of its former editor, Andy Coulson, on Friday morning.
There are many good reasons to rejoice in the unexpected and sudden demise of NOTW. It signals that there are limits to the impunity of Murdock’s empire. It has opened up a crucial debate about the failure of media self-regulation. It has placed the spotlight on corrupt and unethical practices endemic in some corners of the tabloid world, and reminded us of the dangerously incestuous relationship between media and political elites.
Yet, as cynics have been quick to observe, the closure of NOTW may just be a shrewd business move on the part of Murdoch and his corporation which won’t address the underlying problems. Hints abound that the little-mourned newspaper will simply, after a suitable grieving period, be replaced by the Sun on Sunday. And while NOTW was turning a healthy profit for News Corp, newspapers account for only 13% of the worldwide revenues of Rupert Murdoch’s ever-expanding media empire. More than anything, however, Murdoch may have decided to dispense with the troublesome asset at a time when his corporate empire is under scrutiny for its plans to consolidate its dominance of the UK media landscape by taking over BSkyB. News Corp’s takeover would make it by far the biggest broadcaster in the UK, cementing the corporation’s stranglehold on the UK media landscape.
Certainly, the NOTW scandal could not have come at a worse time for Murdoch’s empire: A week-long public consultation on conditions for the takeover bid ended on Friday at noon, and at least 160,000 objections were believed to have been submitted by the deadline. The takeover has been delayed until the autumn, pending Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s investigation of these objections. Aside from public objections, Ofcom may still block the takeover because News Corp may not as a “fit and proper” owner. Indeed, fear of such intervention brought down BSkyB’s shares by 12% this week.
This reminds us that there are larger issues at stake. So let us not be distracted by the replacement of one masthead for another. Murdoch is, at the best of times, an unsavoury landlord of our public sphere. His firing of the 200-odd NOTW journalists is a drop in the ocean of pain he has inflicted on newsworkers in his long career, starting with his death blow to printing trade unions during the Wapping debacle of the mid-1980s. He actively and unapologetically meddles in editorial matters and intervenes in politics, never more disastrously than in the 2000 US Presidential elections, where Fox News prematurely called victory for George W. Bush. But even if he had the moral compass of Jesus, the peaceful intentions of Gandhi and the political agenda of Mandela, it would be disastrous for one man to control so much of what we know. The proposed takeover raises troubling questions about the difficulty of protecting the sacred good of a free and open media at a time marked by ever-growing concentrations of ownership, worsening pressures on journalists and an inexorable decline in the fates of newspapers all over the world. Having diverse voices and views in a pluralistic media landscape is a prerequisite of a functioning democracy. With Murdoch in control of 33% of British daily newspapers and a commercial broadcaster to dwarf all others, diversity and pluralism are endangered as never before. The future, as brought to us by News Corp, will be a dark place; one where our space for public debate will shrink ever further and its conditions will be inexorably shaped by the pro-Tory, free-market, anti-labour ideology of the Murdoch empire.
By all accounts, public pressure played a key role in bringing down NOTW through campaigns on Twitter, Facebook and beyond. In the same way, we can and should continue to resist Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB. Nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake.
Karin Wahl-Jorgensen is a Reader at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff Univesity