Last summer I wrote a piece about the phone hacking scandal which has engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s once all-powerful News International. More than six months later, the crisis still continues. The independent judicial inquiry into the state of the UK media, which has seen a string of newspaper editors give evidence, is still going on. It is quite possible that Justice Leveson’s inquiry will find that other papers – the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror are the ones most talked about – as well as Murdoch’s News of the World, were guilty of hacking people’s phones to get salacious stories.
While the scandal has sullied the reputation of all Fleet Street’s tabloids, it continues to do immense damage to Mr Murdoch’s media stable. Having been forced to close down the News of the World after it was revealed that the paper’s reporters had hacked the voicemail messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, Murdoch is now coming under pressure to do the same to The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily.
In the last couple of weeks, a string of senior Sun journalists have been arrested on suspicion of attempting to bribe police officers, the information allegedly passed on to the police by News Corporation’s own management and standards committee. For the first time since a bitter industrial dispute in 1986 when Murdoch scrapped the Sun’s print unions and moved the paper’s headquarters from Fleet Street to Wapping in East London, disunity and rebellion was in the air.
With characteristic bravado, Murdoch responded by promising that the Sun’s future was secure and that he would soon launch a Sun on Sunday to replace the News of the World. A brave boast, but one that stands no chance of happening if there turns out to be concrete evidence of illegal payments to the police.
Amidst this soap opera lies an important issue, namely, the future of print journalism. Most papers in the UK, and across the rest of Europe, are losing readers and money. The Sun’s profits help subsidise the huge losses of the Times. Russian tycoon Andrei Lebvedev runs his revamped London Evening Standard and the Independent on a skeleton staff. The Guardian Media Group continues to lose money despite a very successful website as does the Trinity Mirror Group, which owns the Daily Mirror. The future of the dead-tree press is not helped by a scandal involving its own.
There have been some crocodile tears at the Sun’s travails from its rivals and victims. Understandably so, since the Sun’s ruthlessness, hypocrisy and mean-spirited editorial stance has always generated a handful of enemies for every new reader. But while I’m not a fan of the Sun, I hope it survives. Rude, lewd, bigoted, funny, and so jingoistic that I often suspect that one of the requirements to be on the editorial team is the ability to still be able to belt out God Save the Queen with a sofa stuffed down your throat, it is an important part of Britain’s media and cultural landscape. Seeing its printing press close would leave a yawning vacuum.