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07.08.11

Death of a Feared Tabloid

The shuttered News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s bestselling paper, stood for the worst, and occasionally the best, aspects of Britain’s now-threatened tabloid culture.

The British weekend will never be quite the same. The decision Thursday by Rupert Murdoch’s News International to close its bestselling title robs the country of a 168-year-old institution with a loyal following. Loved or hated, the News of the World held a place in the national folk consciousness that will survive the revelations of mass phone hacking that led to its abrupt shutdown. In the words of Friday’s Times of London, its News International stable-mate: “Yesterday a little bit of England died and it is time to mourn.”

Certainly, the News of the World had achieved a popularity that was the envy of its rivals. At times, its owners liked to boast that the paper—motto: All Human Life Is There—was the best-read newspaper in the English-speaking world. The plain truth is that it stood for the worst, and occasionally the best, aspects of Britain’s now-threatened tabloid culture: intrusive and indifferent to private suffering but still sometimes capable of uncovering hypocrisy and wrongdoing in high places. At the same time, it could be widely enjoyed—and widely feared.

In line with other British papers circulation was falling, but more than 2.6 million readers, 600,000 more than its closest rival, were still buying a copy every Sunday. And the readership was broad. One reason for the paper’s popularity with advertisers was the large proportion of coveted high-end  consumers. “It had achieved that clever alchemy of appealing across the community,” says Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent. (In the distant past classier readers might excuse themselves by pointing to some thoughtful contributors, including Winston Churchill and the archbishop of Canterbury.)

The basic formula for success was well-established, a zesty mix of scandal, smut, and scoops, spiced more recently with plenty of celebrity gossip. Long before the paper became Murdoch’s first British acquisition in 1969, the News of the World had a name for pushing the boundaries of taste, with a speciality in exposing the sexual misdemeanors of politicians or clergymen, earning its “News of the Screws” nickname.

The basic formula for success was well-established, a zesty mix of scandal, smut, and scoops, spiced more recently with plenty of celebrity gossip.

But the paper’s last years brought difficulties that highlight wider challenges now facing Britain’s tabloids. Media watchers saw a gradual change in style as the paper squared up to strengthening privacy laws, a determined public-relations industry, and ever fiercer competition. Tactics turned nastier. Some bosses were apparently ready to sanction wrongdoing on a massive scale. Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who went on to serve Prime Minister David Cameron as director of communications, was arrested Friday on charges relating to phone hacking and illegal payments to the police. Also detained was Clive Goodman, the paper’s former royal editor, who has already served a jail term for phone hacking.

But amid all the celebrity scuttlebutt the paper never quite lost a flair for serious investigative journalism. It was a sting by the News of the World that last uncovered Fergie, aka the Duchess of York, offering to sell access to her former husband. This year, its exposure of the corruption in Pakistani cricket won the coveted Scoop of the Year award, one of four trophies the paper collected at the national Press Awards, more than any other tabloid or Sunday paper.

Was the paper alone in turning to large-scale illegality in response to a changing market? An investigation into the hacking charges by Britain’s information commissioner back in 2006 found evidence that many of its rivals also had used private investigators to dig out personal information.

Confirmation should follow. David Cameron is now promising an inquiry into the standards of the British press. The most valuable legacy left by the News of the World may be a return to the standards that it had progressively abandoned.