+ A flowing or coming together; junction. + The place where two rivers, streams, etc. meet. + A flocking or assemblage of a multitude in one place; a large collection or assemblage.
It’s been one of those rare weeks when a single story has dominated the headlines of every news outlet, whether in print or broadcast: the rapid demise of the News of the World. A confluence of events means that today’s is the final edition of a 168 year old newspaper that once listed a young Winston Churchill as war correspondent. It’s also the very first time I’ve bought a copy.
Young Milly Dowler was abducted and murdered in 2002. Two weeks ago her killer was convicted after a harrowing trial that had left Milly’s parents feeling that at times it was they who had been on trial. Then, on Monday 4 July, the Guardian’s Editor in Chief, Alan Rusbridger, tweeted: "News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemail & deleted messages. Family says “heinous” http://bit.ly/luyRqs #metgate"
The story noted that:
"…the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly’s voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened – and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not."
The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.
The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention.
Within hours it was alleged that the voice mails of relatives of the dead from the 7 July 2005 terrorism attacks on the London Underground had also been hacked. This news emerged on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the tragedy. Part two of the confluence.
Meanwhile, News Corporation (owner of News International, which in turn owns the News of the World) was in the closing stages of completing its proposed takeover of the 61% of BSkyB (aka Sky TV) that it doesn’t already own. A UK Government consultation was to end on Friday. Part three of the confluence.
At it’s simplest level, this sad story tells us about the absence of standards amongst some of the journalists at the News of the World. It casts a revealing light on the lack of ethical leadership amongst the editorial team who - if we’re to believe them - never bothered to ask how their people were in receipt of the information that formed the core of their ‘exclusives’. And it shows how people will often promote ‘ignorance is bliss’ as an art form.
But, for me, the saddest part is what it says about us, the great British public. Newspapers exist to quench our thirst for intrigue and gossip. We don’t just like reading about it, we demand to read it.
The so-called ‘hacking’ story had been in the public domain for several years but, prior to this week’s tumult, the victims were typically politicians and celebrities. The great British public holds these people to be, en masse, a bunch of corrupt, two-faced and overpaid good-for-nothings. The invasion of their privacy, therefore, was not a source of indignation for us. No, it was the price they had to pay for their fame. And with such logic we managed to reposition the News of the World - a purveyor of tittle-tattle - as a campaigning protector of the public interest.
But this week’s revelations were different for this week the victims weren’t movie stars or politicians. It was a murdered little girl and her parents whose privacy had been invaded. Feelings of schadenfreude were totally absent this time around. And that has proved to be the critical difference.
On the back page of today’s final edition of the News of the World is a quote from George Orwell’s 1946 essay Decline of the English Murder:
"It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World."
Fast forward to last week and you’d be just as likely to be reading the paper online or searching for its hashtag on Twitter. But today the paper is gone and #NOTW has become #NOWT. But something else will fill the gap - maybe Rupert Murdoch’s rumoured Sun on Sunday - and who’s to say that its standards will be any different so long as the 7.5 million people who read the paper every week continue to delight in the sort of crap it served?