The fate of Britain’s top-selling tabloid newspaper has been delivered by the Murdoch family last night who, in a shock move, announced that News of the World will shut up shop in the wake of a seemingly endless array of phone hacking controversies.

James Murdoch, chairman of News International, announced that the final edition of the 168-year-old newspaper — read by more people than any other printed in the English language — will be distributed this Sunday and all revenue from weekend sales will “go to good causes.”

News of the World subscribers received the following email early this morning, Australian time:

In his rueful announcement, Murdoch said:

When I tell people why I am proud to be part of News Corporation, I say that our commitment to journalism and a free press is one of the things that sets us apart. Your work is a credit to this.

The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.

The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself.

News International’s surprise decision has been widely interpreted as an 11th hour attempt for the company to cover its tracks and prevent further scandals from surfacing.

Others have also speculated that it may be the beginning of a re-branding exercise, citing the registration of two domain names — “TheSunonSunday.co.uk” and “thesunonsunday.com” — as evidence of a cunning News International marketing strategy.

Emily Bell from The Guardian described the decision as “swift and brutal,” “brilliant and cynical.”

James’s Wapping moment sees him making a gesture he hopes will be grand enough to soften the focus of any phone-hacking inquiry, bold enough to allow the company to extricate itself from present trouble and, in the process, allow him to reshape News International around the digital television platforms he feels both more comfortable with and which are undoubtedly more profitable.

The front page for competitor The Times pulled no punches:

Interviewed by Reuters, high-profile British lawyer Mark Stephens described News of the World’s impending liquidation as “a stroke of genius — perhaps evil genius.” Stephens explained that under British law all of the newspaper’s assets — from coffee mugs to all its records and documentation — could be legally destroyed by the liquidator.

Gasps, tears and anger reportedly characterised the News of the World staff meeting during which beleaguered editor-in-chief Rebekah Brooks, who Rupert Murdoch has publicly backed, made the big announcement.

Writes Ravi Somaiya for the New York Times:

Many of the paper’s 200 or so employees thought she would be announcing her own resignation…Instead, as the speech wound to a close, according to a member of staff who was present, there was shock as it became clear that the newspaper would be shuttered and that, though they might apply for other positions within the media conglomerate, their job prospects were at best uncertain.

NotW staff went outside to talk, smoke cigarettes, make phone calls and — in true British journalistic spirit — some ventured to the pub.

Widespread anger has understandably been directed at NotW’s top brass. As this website succinctly points out, Brooks’ head is yet to roll and her job prospects seem secure. Further up the chain of command, 80-year-old mogul Rupert Murdoch has, of course, not escaped criticism.

Slate’s Jack Shafer describes NotW’s closure as a vintage move from the Murdoch playbook.

Just before he hits the wall, he does a little dummy, he feints this way and that, and then he sets off with undiminished speed in a new direction. This is Murdoch’s genius: not that he gets into a jam, but that he is able to walk away afterward, an implausible winner.

James Murdoch has also come under fire.

At this story on The Age reports, Murdoch Jnr has:

Joined the list of those facing possible jail…Former British home secretary Alan Johnson has suggested to the BBC Murdoch’s statement announcing the paper’s closure contained an admission that could expose him to prosecution.

More updates to come…

Thursday July 7

By Amber Jamieson and Crikey intern Lawrence Bull.

In just 24 hours the News of the World phone hacking scandal slid from bad to worse. Could it bring down a prime minister? Will it greatly affect the current dominance of Rupert Murdoch in the UK media market? Why were the UK police not paying closer attention to this?

Yesterday it became public that the News International-owned UK tabloid NotW hacked into the voicemail of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, giving her family false hope she was alive and impeding police investigations. Families of victims of the 2005 London bombings were also targeted.

Since then, Scotland Yard began investigating claims that families of UK soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan also fell prey to NotW’s phone hacking by private investor Glenn Mulcaire,who was hired by NotW.

Following the public furore over the taping of everyday citizens and victims of crimes — previously the hacking revolved around royal aides and well-known celebs — Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday agreed to hold at least one public inquiry, possibly two into the phone hacking scandal and media regulation. Cameron’s former director of communications Andy Coulson was an ex-editor of News of the World at the time much of the phone hacking occurred. Coulson was forced to quit his plum post as PM chief spinner when the scandal worsened earlier this year.

Even more high profile companies are refusing to support NotW with their advertising dollars, including Lloyds, Virgin Holidays and Mitsubishi Motors. It may be the advertisers withdrawing that makes Rebekah Brooks — editor of NotW when Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked and current News International executive — finally resign, says Roy Greenslade.

Dealing with this scandal may be Cameron’s greatest test, argues Peter Oborne in The Telegraph:

“In the careers of all prime ministers there comes a turning point. He or she makes a fatal mistake from which there is no ultimate recovery. David Cameron, who has returned from Afghanistan as a profoundly damaged figure, now faces exactly such a crisis. The series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch’s News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation.”

But Cameron has a lot to be grateful for in this debacle, and his thanks should begin with The Guardian, says Bagehot in The Economist:

“If it were not for the Guardian and others digging away for the last several months, Mr Coulson might still be director of communications at Number 10 this morning. And if he were still there, then a rough day for the prime minister would be something quite different: a catastrophic day in which the prime minister, and his startlingly poor judgement in hiring Mr Coulson, was the story.”

Politicians don’t normally question Murdoch. “Yesterday’s exchanges in the Commons were ones I thought I would never witness. They are of historic importance”, writes a gleeful Steve Richards in The Independent, “Senior elected politicians dared to challenge the powerful Murdoch empire and there was an air of catharsis as they did so.”

Guardian regular Roy Greenslade appears in the just-launched Huffington Post UK (it sure chose a bumper news day to arrive on the UK media scene) to call the public response to news that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked “unprecedented”, and questions the role of the police in the case:

Police found hundreds of documents in Mulcaire’s house with the names of other people who had been hacked. Yet they chose to inform very few of them and did not investigate any further. That failure has led to a new inquiry, known as Operation Weeting, by the Metropolitan Police.

There must be questions too about Surrey police for failing to pursue the News of the World over its interception of Milly Dowler’s phone.

It’s crucial that the phone hacking scandal be taken into account when examining whether Rupert Murdoch should be allowed ownership of the BSkyB channel, declares The Guardian‘s editorial:

It is obvious to most people who have followed the sordid twists and turns of the phone-hacking saga that it would be extremely undesirable to let Mr Murdoch — who already owns nearly 40% of the national press — to have complete control over a vast broadcasting operation as well… How much worse does it have to get before Mr Hunt [Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary who has the final say on Murdoch’s BSkyB deal] listens?

But that doesn’t mean papers like The Independent enjoy watching their rivals squirm. Instead, today’s Independent editorial hopes not all UK papers will be painted with the same immoral NotW brush:

“It is probably not reasonable to believe that phone hacking and other unethical and illegal practices were restricted either to the News of the World or to the News Corp stable… But it is also crucial to defend the honour of this and other newspapers, especially at a time when the press as a whole is coming under acute financial pressure. Most journalists and most newspapers well know the difference between ethical and unethical, legal and illegal, right and wrong. Most stay on the right side of the line.”

This whole scandal seems to reveal both the best and the worst of UK journalism.

Peter Fray

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