Saturday, July 9, 2011

When a News Room Becomes a Crime Scene

For the most part, journalists try to keep themselves out of the headlines. When news stories focus on the actions of journalists, it is usually a sign that something has gone wrong.

That was more evident than usual today in London as News of the World prepared the paper’s final edition. Reporters came from around the world hoping to get a glimpse of the final afternoon at a newspaper that was closing after being in operation for 168 years, and after being at the top of the headlines for five days straight.

News of the World had been dogged by scandal for years — among other transgressions, it had been caught breaking into the voice mail accounts of celebrities — but this was different. The paper had broken into the voice mail of a missing girl who was later found murdered. It was commonly believed that the paper had bribed police officials to get advance word of police news, but this was seen in a new light when investigators said the amount of the bribes was more than £100,000. Amid these two revelations, one prominent advertiser said it was pulling its ads. A former editor, now a prominent political figure, was indicted. It emerged that the paper had also broken into the voice mail of the close relatives of perhaps 4,000 military service members who had been killed in the line of duty. Six more major advertisers pulled out, one pulling all ads from the paper’s parent company. Realizing that there was much worse news on the way, the paper announced it would be closing. Staffers were reminded that any of them might be suspects in the ongoing investigation. More arrests followed this morning. So many advertisers called to pull their ads that the paper elected to run its final edition without any commercial ads at all.

The news room may not have been officially designated as a crime scene, but that is effectively what it was today. Reporters had to complete the final Sunday edition without the benefit of e-mail, which had been locked down at the request of the police. At the end of the afternoon, the editor led the staff out of the building so they could face the assembled press outside together. Meanwhile, more than half of the most-read stories in today’s U.K. news are the stories about the newspaper investigation. When a newspaper reaches this level of controversy, it surely has no credible way of operating, and when tomorrow’s paper is printed, it will be treated more as a souvenir than as a news source.

The scandal shows no sign of dying down. The paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, is en route to London to try to rescue his U.K. executives (including son James), his bid to buy a satellite TV channel, and his company’s stock, which has lost $3 billion in market value in the last three days. Yet Murdoch risks being arrested during his visit if documents tie him to the wiretapping conspiracy. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s job is in jeopardy because of his close ties to the paper, and pundits are asking if the unfolding scandal is “Britain’s Watergate,” noting the similarity to the illegal spying activities of officials in the Nixon administration in 1972.

In the United States, observers are already asking whether cable channel Fox News, which has the same ownership and a similar business model, might meet a similar fate. There is no whisper of a wiretapping conspiracy or other legal troubles inside Fox News, but its journalistic lapses are legendary and have already cost it all of its major advertisers and forced it to cut its staff significantly. Fox News may come under closer law enforcement and political scrutiny now that its parent company is in retreat and its owner, under investigation.