Be wary of what may fill the space vacated by the passing of the scandal-plagued News of the World.
When I lived in London in the early 1990s working in the financial trade press, there was one newspaper that single-handedly tore apart the Tory government of John Major, the weakened remnant of Margaret Thatcher’s dominant Conservative Party of the previous decade.
The News of the World – which closed at the weekend – was former Australian Rupert Murdoch’s real tabloid killer at the time, even if his weekly The Sun was regarded as the jewel in the News Corporation print crown.
The News of the World harried the Tories, who set themselves up for failure by campaigning on family values when many of the cabinet lived by another set of rules.
As an Australian, I was shocked by how much the personal lives of British politicians came under scrutiny during this period. Then again, the reading was not only titillating, it was true. In marked contrast to the views of many about London’s tabloids, the News of the World took high-profile scalps because it had the evidence.
Perhaps personal lives were an easy target but, then again, it was the hypocrisy of the ruling party that invited such unprecedented scrutiny.
However, the News of the World’s methods went far beyond anything that most journalists would use and frequently went beyond the boundaries of anything a boring old finance reporter like myself would consider ethical.
Covert surveillance, paying vast sums to intimate confidants and conducting sting operations were standard techniques used by News of the World and, I might add, its competitors, in order to break stories in the most competitive of newspaper markets.
The battles and intrigues and carry on at these tabloids are well described in Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie’s book Stick It Up Your Punter! The rise and fall of The Sun, which is a great account of the pre-1990s tabloid leader, The Sun, remembering that it and News of the World were sister publications which actually had the same editorial leadership for periods of the 1970s and 1980s.
A leading figure from this period, Larry Lamb, a long running editor of the The Sun in the 1970s who had oversight of the News of the World during some of that time, played a part in shaping Western Australia’s media landscape.
Mr Lamb was editor of The Australian before being recruited by Robert Holmes a Court to edit The Western Mail, his attempt to shake up the local media market. Although that effort failed on paper, Mr Holmes a Court ultimately succeeded, gaining control of the established opponent The West Australian and installing the leadership from the Mail into Perth’s only morning daily.
Mr Lamb returned to Perth a bit later to consult to struggling afternoon paper The Daily News which was owned by the Community Newspaper Group run by Simon Hadfield, now involved in resources-focused media and events group Resource Information Unit.
Local folklore has it that the former British editor brought his tabloid ways to the conservative Perth market by introducing page three girls to The Daily News, a shift that may or may not have contributed to the newspaper’s demise at a time when all afternoon papers were on death row.
But Mr Hadfield told me Mr Lamb was opposed to the page three girl concept when he spent three months advising on The Daily News, believing the Perth market was not ready for that.
He was right, although The Daily would have died anyway and it was almost useless when I joined The West Australian in 1990. At that stage, The Daily was owned by Bell Publishing, the parent of The West.
But I digress. Perth may not have been the place for the tough personal style of London tabloids, as a more recent editor of The West Australian, Paul Armstrong, found out, but in the UK it has dominated for the past four decades.
The News of the World was a leader in an environment where its roguish disregard for authority, cultivated throughout Mr Murdoch’s tabloid papers, was what the market wanted – especially in Britain where the class-based society was breaking down. The elite of Britain were no longer a protected species. (In egalitarian Australia, it could be argued, this had not been the case since the convicts were freed).
It is also worth noting that the private lives of leading British politicians and royalty were not the only targets of the tabloids like News of the World. Its techniques uncovered arms scandals, bribery in cricket and many other commercial practices that should not take place in a democracy.
But, as much as I admired the ability of the News of the World to uncover all manner of scandal, I was always uncomfortable with its methods.
Journalists masquerading as Arab sheiks, paying off the prostitutes and mistresses of the powerful, very personal targeting of political figures rather than their policies and, as it turns out, tapping the phones of those it deemed newsworthy are not what journalism is all about.
While I think orthodox journalism has its failings – often we feel like one hand is tied behind our backs – and struggles to deal with modern political and business communications systems which are a barrier to obtaining information, the tabloids of London set a benchmark that few counterparts in the Western world sought to emulate.
Not only did the News of the World inevitably go too far in its quest to get news first and exclusive, its trajectory brought it on a collision course with the internet, which can get all this titillating material out faster and at less financial risk than a major publisher.
Unfortunately, the price we pay for a free press is that someone will always go too far, motivated by profit, politics or self-belief. Whatever the failings of the UK’s tabloids, they will seem constrained as we enter this new age of unfettered online news and activism.
The blogosphere is where ‘tabloid’ news now belongs, allowing more conservative mainstream media to continue to cherry pick the scandals without getting its hands dirty by breaking news of dastardly deeds – and without the direct competition on the newsstands.
The consumer has no need for news from expensive stings and high-tech surveillance if the politicians are prepared to do themselves in with self-portraits on Twitter.
In the case of corruption and true political scandal, online players like WikiLeaks are taking the lead, working hand in hand with established newspapers only because they helped it promote its wares.
In a form of dark irony – schadenfreude is the term that best suits – News of the World has become the scandal and its demise, along with some of the key individuals of its recent past, is the front-page titillation for the rest of us.
Be wary, though, of what may replace it. Mr Murdoch may have been viewed as the dark hand that guided the tabloid exploitation of consumers’ need for titillation and scandal, but at least we knew who he was.
As mysterious players like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and many other unknown faceless people take over the tabloid space, we may one day long for the return of the tabloid and News of the World.