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Why we'll miss the 'Screws'

By Patrick Smith, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Populist campaigning, gutsy reporting and weekly scoops will be missed, Smith says
  • There is a long and dishonorable tradition of salacious, sexually-charged gossip in UK publishing
  • The Guardian deserves every accolade for chasing this story to its logical conclusion
  • Love it or hate it, there will never be a replacement for the News of the World

Patrick Smith is editor and chief analyst of TheMediaBriefing.com, a site for people interested in the future of media business models. He specializes in covering the transition of media to digital platforms and is also a visiting lecturer at City University, London.

(CNN) -- Not even tabloid journalism's most eager apologist could defend the illegal interception of voicemails left on the phones of a missing schoolgirl, the families of war heroes and as many as 4,000 celebrities, politicians and innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire of everyday news.

But while many of its critics will celebrate the closure of News of the World, its tradition of populist campaigning, gutsy reporting and weekly scoops on the lives of the rich and famous will be missed.

As resources for original reporting are squeezed by the harsh transition to leaner digital platforms, there will be a net loss of original journalism. You may not be a fan, but millions of people are.

It seems an odds-on certainty that NOTW's parent company News International will replace it with another Sunday title -- perhaps a Sunday edition of The Sun -- but the unique identity of the "Screws," and its culture of skulduggery and mischief, will go.

As The Times put it in its leader today: "Murders and investigations, scandals and gossip, light entertainment and dark crime ... it was all there."

Headlines such as: "Nudist welfare man's model wife fell for the Chinese hypnotist from the Co-op bacon factory" do not feature in other papers.

Luminaries from across the newspaper world stood to applaud when the paper was awarded the Scoop of the Year prize at the British Press Awards, for the astonishing revelation in March that Pakistani cricketers were allegedly taking bribes as part of a "spot-fixing" scam. The paper has won that gong many times, leading the news agenda with each scoop.

The paper was obsessed, to the point of feverish, perverse delirium, with the sex lives of famous people, preferably sports stars; in its latter years the celebrity sex scandal tended to overshadow the crime scandal.

The paper was obsessed, to the point of feverish, perverse delirium, with the sex lives of famous people, preferably sports stars.
--Patrick Smith

The ideal NOTW front page, or "splash" in Fleet Street parlance, involves a Premier League footballer having sex with one or more people who are not his wife. That explains the legal campaign the paper went through to be able to name Ryan Giggs as being behind a "super-injunction" to prevent reporting of an alleged affair.

In the end, a British MP used parliamentary privilege -- which allows a lawmaker to make statements that would not be permitted outside parliament -- to reveal Giggs's name.

Despite being hardly known outside his sport, motor racing boss Max Mosley got the same treatment in 2008 when the NOTW uncovered footage of him enjoying the company of prostitutes, prompting the memorable headline: "F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers."

A British court found that there was no Nazi element to the incident, which was secretly recorded by one of the participants, and ordered the tabloid to pay Mosley 60,000 British pounds (about $98,000).

Mosley's victory on breach of privacy grounds landed a blow against the kind of "kiss and tell" stories the paper specializes in.

NOTW justifies this intrusion on the basis that adulterous stars are "hypocrites" invariably trading on their "family man image"; its op-ed columns claim that youngsters are being corrupted by watching their heroes misbehave in public.

That defense has always struck me as odd: If you wish to spare the kids from seeing such behavior, don't print it.

It may not be the kind of journalism that many would aspire to. But there is a long and dishonorable tradition of salacious, sexually-charged gossip in UK publishing: The simple truth is that Britons love it.

The "Penny Dreadfuls" were cheap fiction pamphlets sold to Victorian working classes from the 1830s onwards depicting sordid acts of murder and sex. The NOTW was born into this world in 1843 and provided working folk with their fix of racy intrigue at the end of a working week -- something it has been doing for a century and a half and will do for the last time on Sunday.

The red-top was closer to the thoughts and ideas of ordinary people than its broadsheet critics.
--Patrick Smith

The success of the Daily Mail's Mail Online website at home and abroad -- it is the second most-read English language newspaper site according to comScore figures -- proves that even in an online age gossip sells.

The Guardian deserves every accolade for chasing this story to its logical conclusion and revealing the poisonous underbelly of the NOTW's investigative methods.

Guardian reporter Nick Davies ignored every threat, rebuttal and denial from News International and trusted his sources for the last five years. The Guardian's coverage of the scandal, reported in its adrenaline-junky liveblog format, points towards the future of reporting.

But however good the Guardian is, and however bad the NOTW was, the red-top was closer to the thoughts and ideas of ordinary people than its broadsheet critics. Love it or hate it, it will not be replaced.

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