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July 9, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:26am

News of the World was ‘probably beyond reform’ says Rusbridger ten years after closure

By Alan Rusbridger

Alan Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian during its investigation into phone-hacking which culminated in the 4 July 2011 Milly Dowler front-page which prompted the closure of the News of the World three days later. Here he reflects on the closure of the UK’s best-selling newspaper ten years on.

Come back, News of the World. All is forgiven.

How nice it would be to write such a sentence and mean it.

It was ten years ago that the last edition of the paper rolled off the presses.  Rupert Murdoch’s decision to close the 168-year old title was a shocking one. He later admitted he panicked – while also telling the Leveson Inquiry that he should have done it “years before.”

I remember being totally astonished when Dan Sabbagh, then media editor of the Guardian, rushed into my office to tell me the news.  It was the week of the Milly Dowler revelations – mass resignations, prime ministerial statements, arrests, advertiser boycotts and more  – but no-one had predicted that Murdoch would call time on the paper that had once meant so much to him.

I hadn’t wanted the News of the World put out of action. It had become a corrupt and sleazy paper, and I was proud of Nick Davies’s work in exposing the fact. But many great newspapers have gone through rough periods and lived to tell the tale. There were good and talented journalists on the paper: they didn’t deserve to lose their jobs.

Nick was often accused of being “anti-tabloid” in his long, determined slog to reveal the truth about how the News of the World had gone off the rails.  In fact it was the reporters in the paper – the decent ones – who were his best sources. They didn’t like being forced to use criminal methods to get stories. They wanted their paper back.

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Was that really imaginable? If the NoW was still on the streets today would it be exposing genuine corruption in high places? Would it be all over the sleazy deals over NHS procurement and the rampant chumocracy that sees dodgy crooks thriving?  Or would it still be obsessed with celebrity kiss and tell?

It would have been a Herculean task to have cleaned up the culture at a newspaper which, for more than 20 years, had become so dependent on the work of private investigators to do the heavy lifting.

The recent report into the still-unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan contained eye-popping details of the money swilling around the world of bent former police officers and private detectives. By 1989/90, according to Ian Paye, the bookkeeper for Morgan’s company, Southern Investigations, the company was invoicing the NoW up to 500 times a month.

Think about that. Four editions a month – and on average up to 125 pieces of work farmed out to private investigators. Another bookkeeper claimed that Morgan’s company also paid the school fees for a NoW journalist and took care of their monthly credit card bill. Former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick was quoted as saying that bent police officers were being paid “sums of between £500 and £2000 for stories about celebrities, politicians and the Royal family, as well as police investigations.”

And then there was the phone-hacking – carried out on such an industrial scale that  it has so far cost Rupert Murdoch’s UK publishing business more than £1bn, according to a recent Press Gazette investigation. It shows no signs of abating: 2020 (around £80m in pay-outs and legal expenses) was the most costly year since 2014.

So maybe Murdoch was right, after all,  to have closed the paper – knowing that it would have been an immense, maybe impossible, task to transform an operation that had become so prolifically and casually corrupt.

To which one could add the charge of pointless cruelty. Because the NoW – in addition to sometimes bringing down real crooks and villains – found much easier pickings in sex.

I remember the startling downfall of someone I knew slightly and admired greatly. I will not name him, because his memory doesn’t deserve to be further tarnished.  He was a courageous and decent figure who had devoted much of his life to public service.  He was also, it turned out, unfaithful to his wife.

The NoW, at the height of using the dark arts to spy on and illegally track their victims, exposed his infidelity –  with a non-existent defence that it was exposing hypocrisy. In fact, there was nothing hypocritical about my friend – but bucket loads from the then editor, who was engaged in a long extramarital affair when not editing.

The story effectively ended this figure’s life in public service. One of the authors of the piece subsequently went to jail for the methods he habitually used. That can have been little comfort to his victim, who died a few years later. He said that reading the story was like “reading your own obituary while you are still alive”.

What was the point of his suffering? Rupert Murdoch once complained to an American interviewer that Britain was becoming an extremely decadent society . “You don’t have the underlying puritanical history that this country [the US] has got, and influence that is still there.”

Murdoch himself has hardly led a puritanical life, but that didn’t curb his wish to use his tabloids to become a kind of moral police force against anyone who was too gay, too promiscuous or too “decadent”.

The recent payout to Simon Hughes after being outed for having had homosexual relationships may have been against the Sun – also using unlawful methods – but this kind of expose was routine meat and drink to the News of the World. Every Sunday, a few more lives ruined.

So let’s not shed sentimental crocodile tears for a paper that was corrupted by its own success. I remember countless awards ceremonies where  Andy Coulson and his team would be feted for their astonishing track record of scoops. The more they won, the more circulation soared, the more the profits soared. And the more they had to go back and do the same, week after week.

That’s why the decent journalists at the paper helped Nick expose what was going on. At the same time it was scooping up all the gongs and the acclaim the newsroom had become infected by an ugly, bullying and secretive culture. It was probably beyond reform.

May it rest in the kind of peace its victims seldom enjoyed.

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