For the last week the media and public has been abuzz with the ongoing saga about the phone hacking scandal that has caught the public’s attention and got a weekly newspaper, that sold about three million copies each week, closed down.
For a public jaded with celebrity news, the phone hacking scandal that was previously thought limited to royals and film and pop stars did not garner much interest. The Guardian has kept plugging away at the story for the last two years with little public interest and a few thinly veiled threats from journalists and executives from News International, the parent company of The Sun, News of The World, The Times, and The Sunday Times. But in the last week it broke the news that private a investigator and reporters from News of the World hacked the phone of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler and deleted messages from her account interfering with an ongoing police investigation and giving her family and friends false hope. Then it became apparent that the phones of the victims from 7/7, 9/11 and the families of British military servicemen killed in action were also all hacked for profit and stories by the newspaper.
In actuality, the UK has been slurping at the teat of the Murdochs for years and years, but now, rather poetically, a public conditioned to be reactionary in protection of the sanctity of soldiers and murdered children by those very Murdochs is so perfectly fervent in its outrage that the establishment has little choice but to go along with it. It’s remarkable, really. The gutter press anger factory has become such a perfectly powerful machine that it destroyed itself.
Prior to this world of interconnectivity, a scandal such as this may have been discovered and reported in the broadsheets, but the story would not have ended with the closure of a bestselling newspaper. The overly powerful News International newspapers may well have ignored the story like they have tried to in this case – but with social media the people can make their voices heard directly by those paying the bills. The campaign to get News of the World advertisers to pull out of the newspaper on fear of its toxic reputation spreading to their products was a success of direct action of the public through digital media. Hundreds of thousands of tweets, comments, emails and even letters were sent to pressure advertisers to desert NOTW, and within a few days they did – with the result of closing the newspaper.
The closure may have been a cynical ploy by News International to try to stop the toxicity spreading to their other titles and avoid problems with their intended takeover of BskyB, but it does nevertheless demonstrate the power of direct public backlash and influence. Never before has the public been able to make its disgust heard directly to those advertisers that supported the NOTW and a result was swift. The News of the World lost its viability as a paper with both revenue sources, advertising and sales drying up within a few days – the business was dead. Yes Murdoch may well have already had plans to open a Sunday Sun, but the power shift from journalists dictating public opinion to the public being able to voice their opinions openly and measurably is something bigger than this story.
The fallout from this scandal, which has brought Murdoch‘s power within the establishment over both politicians and the police front and centre, may be more damaging than the Australian has yet gathered. Murdoch famously does not understand the value of the internet, the openness, the interconnectivity – and it may well be those factors that prove his downfall. The BskyB takeover is looking more shaky by the day with their share-price plummeting and the public urging politicians to block the deal via services such as 38 Degrees – and with Murdoch locking his newspapers up behind paywalls he has hidden his mouthpiece from the population. By being a News International title The Times is tarnished with the same corrupt brush as the NOTW, and without the ability to set out their distance from the scandal to the digital world – by hiding behind a paywall that excludes both readers and social media discussion via Twitter and Facebook – it is no longer the “Paper of Record”. Here that title may well pass to the digital first and open reporting practised by The Guardian.