It’s finished. The first word that was printed on 1 October 1843 found the last word on 10 July 2011. A newspaper that reveled in and made millions by outing secrets of harmless individuals and destroying their lives —The News of The World—got a fitting burial.
It had claimed many victims in its time: Caroline Cossey, model and Playboy cover girl who acted in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only,” was outed in 1981 as transsexual; she was so distraught that it made her contemplate suicide.
In 1996, the paper exposed the Roman Catholic Bishop, Roderick Wright, who eloped with his parishioner Kathleen MacPhee who was bearing his illegitimate child at that time; the priest was forced to resign and later went on dole. In 2008, technology became the paper’s weapon to intrude into the private lives of people—racing personality Max Mosley’s dalliance was secretly filmed; he sued The News of the World and won £60,000 in damages and £450,000 in legal fees.
It got some scalps though: snooker champion John Higgins for taking bribes to throw matches and Pakistani cricket players for match-fixing.
You can’t fix the truth. Journalists are supposed to know that. Journalism is the last refuge for a public in search of the truth. Hence, it presupposes integrity.
News and opinion are different—the editorial page stands for what the paper believes in, and the news pages report what happens around. Of late, the distinction between the two has blurred and hence politicians who see the opportunity to influence news court editors. David Cameron was no different—the legendary media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch has been seen sneaking into 10 Downing Street through the back door. What is said between prime ministers and media moguls will never be known—after all The News of the World—could have hardly tapped its own boss. The question is, is Murdock morally responsible for what his paper did?
Among all its transgressions, the worst violation in 168 years of The News of The World’s existence was to tap murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone; it continued to do so after her death, deleting voice mails so that they could listen in to new ones coming in. The editor, Andy Coulson was arrested and questioned. Mr. Coulson’s political clout ensured his appointment as David Cameron’s press aide, who had already been warned that the journalist knew about the phone taps. Mr. Cameron’s explanation was that he wanted to give his old friend “a second chance.”
All newspapers thrive on credibility—the facts have to stand to scrutiny. The tabloids take it further—facts have to titillate or shock. Get a few heads rolling in the process—the readership is the Colliseum, the reporter the lion and his subject the poor Christian.
Many years ago, I edited the tabloid “Today” that was published from the India Today Group. It was young and irreverent, and had reporters willing to go the extra mile to expose a corrupt politician, a bent cop or a government official on the take. The paper was owned by perhaps, the greatest living owner-editor in India, Aroon Purie. His motto is simple: even the most sensational, headlines grabbing story should not be published even if a tiny fragment of fact was missing.
In the long run, it is credibility that matters, not headlines. He has chosen not to go the Murdoch way—though I no longer work for him, what he taught me guides most of my actions as an editor—personally and professionally.
India has its Andy Coulsons, too: famous editors, whose ambition got the better of their talent. Proximity to politics is the journalist’s nemesis. Many editors have blatantly used their papers to plant, twist and even fabricate news to please their political masters.
In the 1980s, an editor who used to crawl at Rajiv Gandhi’s feet planted fake stories in his newspaper trying to discredit Rajiv’s tormentor VP Singh—unfortunately his dream of a ministership was dashed when Rajiv died: to survive he had to latch on to a businessman who eventually sacked him ignominiously. Another editor was caught on tape, fixing cabinet berths in the central government.
Another had to resign for lifting a column by a famous British journalist. Another, once a young Socialist, owns a newspaper bought for him by a political party.
Journalism as Purie is fond of saying, is a noble endeavor. There is a romantic quality to the pursuit of truth: Sir Percival with a pen. Temptations abound, but the true scribe travels through all kinds of terrain—gentle and hostile—following his chosen vocation. After all, it’s the news of the world that is his prize.
(Ravi Shankar, one of Asia’s best known journalists, is editor of New Indian Express. He can be reached at: email@example.com)