The News of the World, Britain’s leading peddler of scandal and schadenfreude, is dead, aged 168.
It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany brown tea, have put you in just the right mood.”
With these words, George Orwell opened in his essay, Decline of the English Murder. Over the years, many have questioned its coverage, credibility and practices, but there is no denying that The News of the World, like cucumber sandwiches and cricket on the green, is a British institution. Founded 168 years ago, to bring news to the newly literate working class, the paper reflected whims, anxieties and schadenfreude of Middle England.
Its first historic scoop was on May 18th 1900, when the paper reported the successful Relief of Mafeking during the Boer War, a day ahead of its rivals. During its first decades, it covered real news — from funerals of Queen Victoria and Churchill, to Russian invasion of Eastern Europe.
But soon, it slipped into more lucrative news covering the salacious and the macabre. During the prim 1940s and 50s, it offered sexual assault-trial transcripts. In 1949, it serialized the story of John George Haigh, the “acid bath murderer”. The paper paid his legal bills in return for the handwritten notes he scribbled while in prison.
And Middle England enjoyed it. On June 18th 1950, the paper set the world-record — never broken, and probably never will –for the largest print-run: 8,659,090 copies. Even the paper’s takeover by puritanical Rupert Murdoch in 1969 didn’t change its direction. In 1960, it paid ₤ 36,000 (₤ 600,000 today) for lurid memoirs of Diana Dors, whom the Archbishop of Canterbury called a “brazen hussey”. Three years later, it was the turn of Christine Keeler.
It exposed its fair share of paedophiles, murders and white slavers, but in pursuing its scoop, News of the World never shied away from illegal practices — hidden microphones and cameras, wiretappings, bribery, etc. In 1973, it outrageously installed its own cameras to expose Lord Lambton’s affair when the pictures it obtained were not good enough. Its “named and shamed” campaigns led to mobs attacks on convicted paedophiles (and sometimes, innocent bystanders). The paper always snubbed its nose not only at authorities but also at the principle of “presumption of innocence”, once going “undercover” inside a jail to take photos of a man who was later convicted of murdering two girls.
Vicars, politicians, actors and sportsmen were stalked and scrutinized with a zeal unseen outside totalitarian dictatorships. Their private lives were exposed and denounced. It ruined the careers of Frank Bough (“I took drugs with vice girls”), Angus Deayton (“drugs romp with vice girl”), Jeffery Archer (“pays off vice girl”), Alan Clark (“affair with a judge’s wife and her two virgin daughters”), Mark Oaten (“hires male prostitutes”) and Max Moseley (“Nazi Orgy”). A familiar tag often was “See pages 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6”. In recent years, “sting operations” by the “Fake Sheikh” — an undercover reporter who posed as a wealthy Arab businessman caught the Countess of Wessex making candid statements about Tony Blair and the Duchess of York selling access to Prince Andrew.
If its life was the story of fetor and contempt, its demise was that of betrayal and hypocrisy. In the past, the public has gleefully, salivatingly followed the paper’s transgressions — when they were directed against private lives of public figures — but when the families of murdered girls, dead soldiers and terrorism victims became targets, News of the World seemed to have crossed an invisible line.
The public once condoned the paper’s illegal practices as long as they were targeted upon those who “deserved”, blithely ignoring the fact that no one — not even the most hated celebrity — deserves having his/her privacy invaded. And the public revels in this hypocritical (and often indiscernible) divide between “them” and “us”, and it’s this divide that News of the World obligingly exploited.
For most of its life, News of the World hid behind sensational headlines, “justifiable intrusions”, and false incentives; nowhere was the paper’s “end-justifying-means” attitude more clear than in its proud announcement that it was responsible for more than 250 convictions in recent years. Ironically, in coming weeks and months, that figure is likely to go up.
News of the World is survived by its equally sordid brethren across the world, and tens of millions of enablers.