Any editor worth his salt will press the paper’s lawyers to find a way through the legal thickets to allow him to publish an important story even if he has uncovered it dubiously. Sometimes both editor and lawyer will blunder.
But these things were unsayable.
For the NOTW had blundered wholesale, using such methods quite promiscuously to uncover the adulterous affairs of soccer players and other celebrity tidbits as well as genuine stories such as the “fixing” of international cricket matches. Celebrities embarrassed by these gossip stories have been collecting legal apologies and large checks, amounting to a million dollars or more, from News International in a series of continuing lawsuits. These civil penalties seem both a suitable compensation to those injured and, since proprietors dislike losing millions, an effective disincentive to future misbehavior.
But government, politicians, and police all seem to want to go further — toward criminal penalties for past offenses and tough government regulation of the media in future. Last summer all major parties agreed to establish a judicial investigation, the Leveson inquiry, to investigate tabloid excesses and to consider how to restrain them. It is now holding daily public hearings. The police have launched a massive investigation staffed by 171 officers — allegedly the largest single police investigation in British history — into both phone hacking and payments to police contacts. They are now examining an estimated 300 million e-mails provided to them by the Management and Standards Committee — a fishing expedition of trawler proportions. And there have been a series of “dawn raids” at which senior NOTW
journalists (including a chief picture editor, a chief foreign correspondent, and a chief news editor) have been arrested, detained, forbidden to talk to each other, their homes searched, and their computer equipment confiscated.
At almost any other time such an official crackdown would have been seen as wildly excessive and even sinister. But in the current climate of hostility to tabloids and “the Murdoch press,” fueled by daily revelations at the Leveson inquiry, anything goes.
Last week saw the first sign of resistance to this climate. Rupert Murdoch flew into London, sent a message to Sun employees that the arrested journalists were innocent unless proven guilty, and announced that a new Sunday paper — the Sun on Sunday — would be launched to replace the NOTW. It was duly launched on Sunday with the paradoxical effect, as its columnist Toby Young pointed out here, that liberal critics complained of its respectability and lack of typical tabloid scandals. It also sold a very healthy 3 million copies. And for the first time in months, Murdoch enjoyed moderately favorable press coverage.