Having "The world's greatest newspaper 1843-2011" on the cover of the last ever issue of News of the World ranks right up there with "The world's greatest prophet" on the cover of Harold Camping's biography or "World's greatest dad" on a mug given to Joseph Fritzl. But there it was, on Sunday, looking for all the world like a beloved title was sadly having to close, despite tearful protests on the part of the reading public. Boo hoo.
News of the World (NOTW) was not a good paper. It may have hacked people's voicemail, and that is bad enough. But its real crime, in my opinion, was the elevation of tawdry gossip to the status of news and the radical simplification of real news to the level and tone of gossip. It was never alone in that and neither was it alone in being a mouthpiece for a far-too-powerful, far-too-sinister media conglomerate, controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Its demise is a cause for celebration, if perhaps only limited celebration. Yes, many people who had nothing to do with phone hacking will lose their jobs, and that is sad. But it is sad in the way it is sad when people are laid off because a chemical weapons plant closes down. Yes, NOTW will likely be replaced by The Sun on Sunday (unless the public makes that impossible) and that paper will do similarly awful things. But the usual suspect cynics who stand back with superior grins and say that NOTW's closure is meaningless are as wrong as the bleeding hearts who think an inherently polluting business should be kept afloat purely for the sake of its employees.
Frankly, last week demonstrated that usual suspect commentators and politicians may be becoming obsolete. The best commentary on the NOTW story last week came, after all, from unexpected, underestimated people. Bumbling pretty-boy actor Hugh Grant and Radio 4 comedy writer John Finnemore said some of the most inspiring things about media and politics that I have ever heard on the public airwaves. I encourage you to track down Hugh on "Question Time" and John on "The Now Show." It's inspiring stuff.
It also rather eclipses the rot being trotted out by those politicians who have too long been in the pockets of Rupert Murdoch and his global business brethren. Our beloved PM said last week that we were all somehow to blame. Perhaps those who regularly bought the poxy rag are, to an extent, but I think that's a cop-out. If there is a larger problem it is not with all journalism, all Britons, all politicians (to the point where it's really nobody's fault, as Mr. Cameron would have us believe). It is with those newspapers, journalists and, yes, readers, who happily create and consume journalism that panders to the basest part of us. I am not talking, as so many Christians have, about bare breasts in newspapers. I know what breasts look like. I am talking about "news" that glorifies the trivial and revels in scandal, while ignoring the real issues.
I am talking about newspapers promoting xenophobia, war and shame as if they were national virtues. I am talking about papers that cynically encourage lazy people's desire to find someone to hate and use that to further the right-wing political ends of very selfish, very bad people. No, the problem is not limited to News of the World. Sister titles like The Sun and the supposedly respectable Times are controlled by the same people. How independent is journalism when "Times journalists are loyal to [Murdoch's News International]," as Danny Finklestein pointed out last week with horrifying glibness? And while the hateful Daily Mail may not hack phones, their influence is at least as bad.
No, NOTW is not the extent of the problem. Closing it will not automatically change politics or media in Britain. But it's a great place to start.
(This post first appeared in The Baptist Times on 13/07/2011)