Ding! Dong! The witch is, oh… not guilty. While the Twitter jury (“no-nothing trolls” as The Sun called them) delivered their verdicts on the phone hacking trial long ago, the eleven men and women good and true who actually sat through all 110 days of evidence and who deliberated for a further eight days, disagreed, clearing Rebekah Brooks of all charges. It was, her alma mater declared, “A GREAT DAY FOR RED TOPS” and up to a point they were right. However what The Sun conveniently overlooked was the facts that the hacking scandal has so far killed off one red-top, its brother paper the News of the World, and seen Andy Coulson, the former editor of the latter, found guilty.
True to form the media descended on the story like a plague of rats swarming over the rotting corpse of their dead sibling. What did it mean for David Cameron? What did it mean for Rupert Murdoch? What did it mean for the CPS? Yet the one glaring omission is a genuine appraisal of how the Press, and Rupert Murdoch in particular, got their power in the first place and that, dear reader, is where you come in.
In his incisive analysis of the trial, Nick Davies argued that the trial "was all about power" arguing that “Brooks and Coulson ruined lives. They did it to sell newspapers[…]” He added: “The singer’s mother suffering depression; the actor stricken by the collapse of her marriage; the DJ in agony over his wife’s affair: none of their pain was anything more than human raw material to be processed and packaged and sold for profit.” But here’s the thing; what do the papers sell for profit? What the readers want to read.
Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer’s heartfelt criticism of the Press at her funeral drew applause from the crowds outside Westminster Abbey. But the clapping was quickly drowned out by the sound of everyone rushing to the newsagents to get their 48-page, full-colour funeral souvenir editions. In the week following the princess’ death while everyone was telling journalists what bastards they were, sales of the papers they were working for shot through the roof. The Sun and Daily Mirror sold about a million extra copies each on the Monday after her fatal accident alone. They had to beg German and Swedish papers mills to increase their production to meet the demand of extra copies. The Guardian alone used 500 tonnes of extra paper in the week following the tragedy. Even in 2002, when Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell sold his story to the Daily Mirror the paper benefited from a 300,000 day-on-day sales spike. The journalists might have been the bastards writing the stuff but the readers were the bastards buying it.
Time and again they have demonstrated their anger at the tabloid Press by buying them in huge numbers. The final edition of the News of the World in 2011 recorded the paper’s highest sale in 13 years. More than 4.5m people bought a copy (no doubt just so they could burn it, or sell it on eBay). When the Sun on Sunday was launched a little less than six months later, 3.26m readers headed for the shops and bought a copy to register their disgust, (no doubt so they could check out exactly how disgusted they were meant to be). It was 0.5m more than were buying the News of the World in the run-up to its closure.
In the intervening period The Leveson Inquiry was set up and tasked with looking at "the culture, practices and ethics of the press”. Yet the part the readers had to play in that was all but ignored. The issue was touched on briefly when Ian Hislop gave evidence way back in January 2012 and it’s worth outlining what was said in some detail. In his written evidence the Private Eye editor argued that “[…] generally speaking, printing the truth sells newspapers and a big story can result in increased circulation [...]". He clarified what he meant in his oral evidence by suggesting that “[…] if you print things that people don't believe or turn out to be lies, then people don't buy you any more because they don't think you're credible.”
Robert Jay QC, Leveson’s leading counsel countered: “So it's a question of tarnishing the brand, which is a risk all newspapers will be aware of; is that right? “Yes,” replied Hislop. “Tarnishing the brand is putting it a bit low. You want to be the paper that people believe.” Jay continued to press him: “But if your thesis is right, many papers have thrived by not following that principle.” To which Hislop replied: “Yes, and again, you'd have to question the readers very carefully when you invite them in.” He had a rye smile on his face. He knew full well it was a moot point as no meaningful sample of readers would be invited in to be asked that question or surveyed in any way (after all what could the plebs possibly have to contribute to this exercise in establishment naval gazing). However, before Jay steered them in a different direction, Hislop had time to suggest the readers be asked “did they think everything they read was true? When they read subsequent reports saying, ‘Oh, no, this is rubbish’, did they feel embarrassed? Did they think: ‘I shouldn't have bought the News of the World? Why did I read that bit? Did I enjoy that?’”
Good questions that no one has really yet answered. Politicians have cosyed up to Murdoch and his editors because they think a strongly worded editorial or a front page can destroy a career or deliver the keys to Downing Street. During the 1987 General Election campaign the paper relentlessly attacked Labour leader Neil Kinnock, even printing a “Special Nightmare Edition” three days before polling imagining what a win for the Welshman would be like.
Five years later it was The Sun “Wot Won It” a second time as the paper again targeted the Labour party, this time asking “the last person to leave Britain to please turn out the lights”. Despite a lead in the polls, Labour lost and Kinnock resigned as leader questioning how the party could ever win in the face of such vitriolic “misinformation and disinformation”. He didn’t have to wait long to find out. The Sun almost immediately turned its sights on the Tory party with a series of sleaze stories. How we all laughed at David Mellor being caught shagging about in his Chelsea shirt. However it’s interesting to note that this attack on Conservative politicians came at the same time the Government was trying to introduce anti-Press privacy legislation.
New Labour could have got involved, but like any responsible citizen confronted by someone else being mugged, they turned a blind eye, not least because the sustained attack on the Tories increased their own chances of gaining long-craved-for power. The party’s new leader Tony Blair wasn’t willing to take any chances. In 1995 he accepted Murdoch’s invitation to address a News Corporation conference on the Australia’s Hayman Island. “It seems obvious,” Blair said of the meeting in his memoirs, “the country's most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labour party, invites us into the lion's den. You go, don't you?” As much as you might not like to admit it, Blair had a reasonable point. It's the reason why the leaders of Britain's three main political parties, and Nick Clegg, obligingly allowed themselves to be photographed - no questions asked - with the free edition of The Sun produced on the eve of the World Cup.
But this power is not intrinsic to the papers Murdoch produces, it is bestowed upon him by the readers; the people who flock to the shops in droves to buy those papers while telling everyone they meet on the way that journalists are scum. While cover price and ad revenue swelled Murdoch’s coffers, each paper sold gave him an intangible but no less important nugget of power that he could store away for future use. If you own the best selling paper in the land you accumulate a lot of power; if you own a paper no one reads you have no power.
For sure it was Coulson, not the punters, who ordered the phone hacking but he did so to serve up the stories they wanted to read and they kept buying the papers without ever really bothering to ask where those stories were coming from. And this is the point no one admits. It’s far easier to blame “The Press” for phone-hacking and all those nasty celeb stories (that the readers love) than to answer Hislop’s questions. Far easier to demonise a woman because you don’t like the outcome of her trial than to ask whether you thought the stories her papers printed were all true or whether you’re embarrassed that you believed the bits that weren’t or why you kept going back to buy more copies; to give away more power.
Roger Domeneghetti is the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media, available in August from www.ockleybooks.co.uk.