Biggest story of century is salutary lesson for "professional" media

It is difficult to overestimate the scale of News International's decision to close British tabloid the News of the World following revelations of disgraceful behavior by the paper.

It is difficult to overestimate the scale of News International's decision to close British tabloid the News of the World following revelations of disgraceful behavior by the paper.

It is read by more people than any other English language newspaper. It is 168 years old. For over a century and a half it has been a staple of the Sunday routine for well upwards of six million Britons – although recently its circulation had fallen to around 2.6 million copies. But next Sunday's edition will be its last.

The News of the World is owned by the same company that numbers Fox Broadcasting, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and London Times amongst its media properties.

Its recent behavior has been beyond the pale. After years of suppressing full details of phone hacking by private investigators working on behalf of the News of the World newsroom, and the jailing of two people, two further revelations this week ultimately spelled the end for the iconic tabloid.

The fact that representatives of the News of the World hacked into murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone and deleted messages, leading the police and Milly's parents to have renewed hope she was still alive, disgusted the British public and the advertisers that are the lifeblood of any paper. Further news this morning that the families of soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have had their phones hacked was the final straw.

Advertisers expressed their intention to desert en masse. More worryingly for News International, there were suggestions that the ad boycott would spread to other titles in the company's stable. And all this at a time when parent company News Corporation is trying to finalize a sensitive deal to acquire the remaining share in British broadcaster BSkyB it doesn't already own.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had already had to deal with fallout from the affair when in January this year he was reluctantly forced to part company with his head of communications, Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World who resigned from the paper in 2007 following scandal around the interception of voice messages meant for the British royal family.

More heads will roll at News International and many journalistic jobs will go. And the scandal certainly isn't over, as it now transpires numerous executives lied - albeit possibly inadvertently - to the British parliament during investigations into the affair. The future of chief executive Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade), who edited the paper at the start of the scandal, must be in serious doubt.

And the whole drama was played out on Twitter, as advertisers communicated their decisions to their publics and the rolling news story developed over the course of the day. Public opprobrium for the disgraceful behavior was also fueled and stoked up on social media channels. It is the greatest media story of the century so far.

As everyone in PR already knows, the lesson for media outlets is that trust and brand reputation is a fragile thing. In this age of conversation and interaction a lack of transparency is simply untenable.

I would be surprised if the activities undertaken by News of the World journalists are unique to their paper or company. They just happen to have gone further than others and made the mistake of getting caught. But if media outlets are to retain the trust of their readers and consumers they have to adopt much higher standards than they have been displaying.

Don't get me wrong: there are many absolutely fantastic journalists at the News of the World and I sincerely regret they are losing their jobs. But everyone can be a media owner nowadays, whether they are a brand, corporation, agency, or “traditional” media owner. If so-called professionals can't maintain the highest of ethical and practical journalistic standards across the board, why should consumers treat them in any different light to those who seek to cut out the middle man and go directly to their target audiences?

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