The news that the News of the World, the Sunday tabloid, hacked into the mobile phones of real people as opposed to the celebrities and politicans that breathe a different, rarefied air, has left a bad feeling in the mouths of most people. We didn’t necessarily mind when it was rich people who often played away that were brought down by Glenn Mulcaire and other private investigators at the behest of tabloids. There’s something of a sense of justice when those who are often paid an awful lot to do comparatively little are given their comeuppance.
However when the hacking scandal rolled on from the shock that the likes of Lembit Opik were being hacked in order to ascertain just who and what they were doing and into real lives, it became much worse.
Its gravity is compounded by the fact that those real people who have been targeted by tabloids aren’t the bottom-feeders that try and sell stories about how a ghost kettle attacked their dog, or some equally vapid and pointless story. They’re not seeking fame and fortune (like many of those ‘ordinary people’ who have extraordinary things to tell Fleet Street). They’ve often been thrust into a situation they don’t necessarily want to be in, due to horrific circumstances.
The latest news is that families of the victims of those attacked on 7/7 (the sixth anniversary of which is marked today) had their phones hacked. Unscrupulous journalists were trying to eavesdrop on the pain and suffering that comes from death, mutilation and life-threatening injury. David Cameron yesterday in the commons tried to put “and terrorism” onto the phrase “victims of murder” to make what the News of the World had done sound even worse. You don’t have to. Terrorism is murder: in fact, terorrism sounds like a less brutal, more detached version of murder. It isn’t.
But the line was truly crossed a few days earlier, when The Guardian broke the news that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked after she went missing. The breaking point for the British public’s psyche was when for-hire investigators not only accessed the voicemail of the murdered girl’s phone, but began deleting old voicemail messages in order to free up space for new, desperate pleas from police and family members to the answerphone to be recorded and transcribed for the papers.
The problem there is self-evident: it was, at its worst, something which risked blocking police work as they raced against time to try and find a lost girl – or more likely, a corpse. However, it became more problematic when the parents of Milly Dowler admitted that they had noticed that voicemails went missing on their daughter’s phone, and had been given hope that she was somewhere, still in contact. That, in truth, is the most reprehensible part. Eavesdropping is bad enough – but we were, as a public, almost alright with it when it happened to celebrities. It happens in a selective form to all of us, every day by the government. CCTV is the norm; if you say certain words in telephone conversations since 9/11, a supercomputer at GCHQ is likely to pick up on it and listen in.
The News of the World crossed the line, and they’re already facing a backlash from business. Large advertisers – a newspaper’s lifeblood, even if bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s billions – have pulled their pages from this coming Sunday’s newspaper. However what happened this morning, in a BBC interview with a 7/7 victim’s father, could be the more damaging movement.
The British public are notoriously upstanding when it comes to their morals. They know what they like, and what they don’t like. Currently, because of the incredible harm the News of the World has done to relatives of murder victims, they don’t like that paper. And the call has been made: boycott the paper. Don’t buy it this Sunday; don’t buy it next Sunday.
That might sound fanciful: the NOTW is Britain’s biggest paper by circulation, and is the seventh-largest in the world by this measurement. But ask those on Merseyside what their feelings are about another News International title: The Sun. The likelihood is you’ll get passive indifference at best, and a tirade of abuse and spittle as worst. That’s because in the light of another tragedy, the Hillsborough Disaster, The Sun were equally calculating and cold. Today, the Liverpool FC official website refuse on principle to post stories from it, while they’re happy to cover other papers. Before Hillsborough, the paper could boast a circulation of nearly a quarter of a million. As of 2004, the last date localised figures are easily available, they’re lucky to get 12,000 eyeballs in front of a copy of the paper.
Could the same happen to the News of the World on a national scale? There are already two Facebook groups, with more than 10,000 likes between them. An MP made the call in the Commons to do the same. We’ll find out on Sunday, when the paper hits newsagents’ shelves, and the ABC figures come in.
EVENING UPDATE: Well, it seems like the potential of dropping circulation figures is now a moot point. Interestingly, given the analogy I drew earlier, it looks like this is less of a proper closure and more of a rebranding. If you think that News International won’t have a Sunday tabloid, then you’re particularly naive.
The interesting questions are a) what will the new newspaper be called? and b) how many of the rump of the News of the World staff will move over? Will the new Sunday News International tabloid (media watchers are thinking that The Sun will gain an extra day’s circulation to Sunday) have a different culture in the newsroom to the crippled, bleak one of the NOTW? That’s what’s yet to be found out.