FEATURE 

News of the World: RIP

It was the week the rotten roof finally caved in on the News of the World, writes Jon Slattery, as it was engulfed by the phone hacking scandal and was closed in the ultimate damage limitation exercise.

By Jon Slattery

Going down with the 168-year-old paper and its staff is the reputation of British newspaper journalists, at least those at the tabloid end of the market.

It was the week the excuses ran out. Some had argued that celebrities who promoted themselves via the tabloids could be seen as fair game when their phone messages were hacked.

It was claimed that politicians had an axe to grind against the press because of the expenses’ scandal, that Labour blamed News International for its general election defeat, and that the general public did not really care about the phone hacking issue.

But revelations about hacking the phones of murder victim Milly Dowler and the parents of Soham girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the families of the July 7 London bomb victims and war dead have changed all that.

The public has reacted with revulsion which prompted David Cameron to accept demands that there should be public inquiries into the hacking affair and the media which is likely to put self-regulation of the press under the spotlight.

Matt Pritchett, the Telegraph’s brilliant pocket cartoonist summed up the tarnished image of print journalists this week with a cartoon of a couple approaching a house party. The wife turns to her husband and says: “Don’t tell them you work for a newspaper. Pretend you’re a member of the Gaddafi family”.

One business to business journalist Adam Tinworth, Reed Business Information’s editorial development manager, tweeted: “From now on, I'm a blogger not a journalist. Don't want my credentials dragged down by association with newspaper hacks.”

In some ways, the long running phone hacking scandal could not have come at a worse time for the journalism profession.

Beleaguered by the rise of “citizen journalists” and bloggers, professional journalists have had to defend their skills and try and justify why their work is worth paying for in a digital age when so much editorial is available for free.

Professional journalists have tried to take the high ground. “Bloggers and citizen journalists don’t pay for a Baghdad bureau”, or “they don’t know the law”, or “they don’t cover courts and councils like we do”.

Then this horrible scandal makes much of the journalism profession a pariah in the eyes of the Twitter generation.

And companies like Ford and the Halifax are taking the moral high ground by pulling adverts from the News of the World.

So how has it come to this? I think the roots lie in a particularly thick skinned macho image that tabloid journalists have revelled in.

It took as its mantra the Millwall football fans chant: “Nobody likes us and we don’t care”.

It prided itself on bending the rules and on pushing stories to the limit and is a culture that goes back to the cut-throat competition of the Fleet Street tabloids when “getting the story” meant everything.

Journalism needs idealists not cynics. But will they be attracted to working for a press that looks so tawdry?

Who would want to join a “profession” that adds to the pain and suffering of the relatives of murder victims, those killed by terrorism, in war or that used dodgy private investigators to do its dirty work.

The only straw to clutch at is that the scandal has been broken by dogged reporting by the Guardian’s Nick Davies and other journalists.

This story won’t end with the closure of the NoW. James Murdoch has already been accused of cynically closing the paper to secure the BSkyB deal. As the police inquiry continues, we are likely to see more revelations of debased journalism, the arrest and possible jailing of more journalists.

Of course only a few journalists are phone hackers or use private eyes and the rest can claim they should not all be blamed for the rogue behaviour of tabloid hacks.

There were even signs of a bit of a fight back at the end of this week with the Independent arguing in a leader that MPs should not slur all journalists over the hacking affair and a couple of regional newspaper editors spoke out sticking up for their industry.

But one can’t help feeling that Matt is right about the public. At the moment, newspaper journalists would lose out in a popularity contest to Colonel Gaddafy.