The News Of The World: it’s probably not the revolution that you think it is

I was getting ready to give my presentation at the CIPR the other evening when the news broke on Twitter about the News of The World. There was a sense (which I personally believe to be wrong) that this was going to result in a revolution that would:

  • Take down News Corporation
  • Radically change the standards of journalism

I want to hear a revolution out there

When Karl Marx wrote his book The Communist Manifesto, he would have anticipated that the class struggle would have gone into revolution in the United Kingdom. At that time, the country was pioneering the industrial revolution and many members of society had every reason to be dissatisfied with their lot in life. Instead his writings inspired revolutions in the mainly agrarian societies of Russia and China. Whilst, the UK provides foreigners like Marx and Engel with the freedom to express their views in a manner that wouldn’t have been tolerated in their native Germany, the country also had an effective state security mechanism in the Special Branch of the police. But writers and thinkers have speculated that there is also something ‘counter revolutionary’ in the UK psyche.

Probably the closest we came to seeing it was the economic induced Jarrow march and the industrial disputes of the 1970s; which were as much a kick back against useless management teams in companies and a lack of investment, as they were a rising up of the proletariat.

Social rather than political movements didn’t get much further; the summer of love brought the modern fractured nuclear family. The backlash of punk ushered in the yuppie and the ravers of 1988 that were a reaction to the grim social and cultural reality of Thatcherite Britain with a bit of weekend hedonism turned into the controlling Big Society of today. All of these events felt as if the world was going to be changed; but it didn’t in any meaningful way. The UK hasn’t had a media industry equivalent of the Arab spring.

Most of the noise around this is happening on Twitter and in the media of the middle classes rather than the heartland of the News of The World. They don’t speak for the minicab driver, the hairdresser, the plumber or the joiner; who are more likely to be worried about the latest antics of Cheryl Cole and where are they going to find the same quality of sports reporting in another Sunday paper?

News Corporation resilience

Rupert Murdoch has experienced many ups and downs as he built News Corporation and whilst the current News Of The World scandal is no doubt upsetting it isn’t the closest his business has come to going under. In terms of the organisation as a whole, the boiler plate on News Corporation press releases says everything that needs to be said:

News Corporation (NASDAQ: NWS, NWSA; ASX: NWS, NWSLV) had total assets as of March 31, 2011 of approximately US$60 billion and total annual revenues of approximately US$33 billion. News Corporation is a diversified global media company with operations in six industry segments: cable network programming; filmed entertainment; television; direct broadcast satellite television; publishing; and other. The activities of News Corporation are conducted principally in the United States, Continental Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, Asia and Latin America.

As a business it exists pretty much as they present it, it is not a paper tiger like the investment banks or Enron and the current event is considered in the wider world to be a UK issue, so there is little likelihood of contagion to his other properties worldwide in terms of lasting reputational damage.

Regroup, rebrand

As the News Of The World shut down, rumours swirled around about The Sun going to a seven-day production. There is a strong business case for them to do this and the current phone hacking scandal debate just provided a great catalyst. Moving to a seven-day newspaper provides a number of opportunities for News International:

  • The Sun’s brand has been stronger and it simplifies the company’s brand portfolio; money is only required to support one brand
  • It allows News International to remove duplication, particularly at senior levels within the papers, so reducing the wage bill whilst increasing profitability

Unlike the Wapping strikes of the 1980s News Of The World journalists being laid off would have little sympathy from the public at large; I doubt even the NUJ would be likely to back them in the face of the current scandal. This provides News International with a unique opportunity to rebrand and regroup around it’s flagship Sun brand. I think that it’s no coincidence that Rebekah Brooks said that News International would seek to ensure that as many of the journalists as possible were re-employed as soon as possible.

Confluence of interest

The proposed media revolution exposes too many interests to chaos and the system like a knitted jumper is too intertwined: pull one thread and the entire sweater would unravel leaving something useless behind. It is in no one’s long term interest to tug on that thread.

In 1992, with the re-election of a Conservative government backed by News International’s media The Sun ran a headline ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’. Tony Blair worked hard to build a relationship with Rupert Murdoch and one of the factors that was seen to help him win power was the tacit approval of the News International papers. Like the political power masters of old, News International can move a bigger block of voters than the Guardian Media Trust papers or the Trinity Mirror Group.

Secondly, for every story that gets run, there are ten papers that don’t see the light of day. What would happen if the media was threatened?

Ethics: the thin end of the wedge

There is speculation that the phone hacking tactics that News of The World employees and contractors have been accused of has also been practiced at other media publications and that evidence will come to light of contagion of dishonesty. A measure of how true that is, was the desire for British journalists to work on the US equivalent of the UK red tops because of their unique no-holds barred approach.

  • What about payments for stories? Do these induce whistle-blowing for profit, or computer hacking?
  • What about dumpster-diving?
  • Or getting people drunk to then interrogate them?
  • What about the use of blackmail to persuade sources to cooperate which was one of the allegations made in the Max Moseley case?
  • How ethical is if for the government or organisations to leak stories?
  • Will journalists now need to be completely transparent about ‘sources close to the matter’? This would mean that journalists couldn’t pad their articles out with speculation, but it also means that PR teams would have to restrict access to spokespeople as briefings couldn’t be done to provide context or background without attribution

The interface between society and the media would fall apart with the media left out in the cold about hard news stories. The social norming around these issues would be shut down and the sausage factory would be put back under wraps before lasting damage is done or the ramifications in business, politics and even the arts would ripple through every aspect of society. It is an imperfect system as it is, but one that works for most of the people most of the time.

The media marketplace

The Romans used to talk about ‘bread and circuses’ to keep a population happy and there is still an element of truth in that phrase today. The News of The World and their peers fill that gap. A media that falls to deliver to that need, fails to sell to a large proportion of the UK population. Whilst lip service may be paid to high standards, journalists will have to deliver what ever is required to keep the printing presses running and the website online. Despite the moral stance of O2 amongst others in pulling advertising from The News of The World; advertisers generally follow the audience in terms of their media spend.

More reading

Did Twitter kill a newspaper? Of course not – GigaOM

Phone Hacking Scandal live updates – The Guardian

Why did Murdoch close the News Of The World? Daily View – BBC News blog

Message from Rebekah Brooks to all News International staff

Statement from Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO, News Corporation regarding the phone hacking allegations

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