Wow. Shortly after 4pm this afternoon, News International Chairman James Murdoch announced the immediate closure of the News of the World. A campaign launched on Twitter to get major NOTW advertisers to withhold their business from the paper had provided the only nudge many of them needed to do just that; there was a real prospect of contagion spreading across News International’s four UK titles. Added to that, pressure was growing (and indeed continues to grow, if somewhat abated by Murdoch’s “breathtaking gesture”), for Newscorp’s planned takeover of BSkyB to be delayed or abandoned. Newspapers represent just 13% of Newscorp’s global revenues, according to the BBC’s Nick Robinson, with television being far more lucrative; even if the contagion within the print business had been stopped, the impact on the BSkyB deal would have been too costly to contemplate.
Undoubtedly many of the ordinary people working for the NOTW “deserved much better than they got”. 21st century print journalism is a notoriously tough field in which to work, and comparatively poorly paid at most levels. Many of those laid off from News International’s Wapping operation are likely to be low-level desk jockeys and print workers, and there will be a knock-one effect on suppliers and distributors caused by the collapse of the country’s highest-circulating newspaper. This is not the fault of the mobilised public on Twitter and in Parliament, however, but of News International, and in particular senior managers who oversaw a newsroom capable of such acts of inhumanity as listening to the voicemail messages of recently-bereaved war widows in order to drum up tabloid gossip. One such senior manager, Rebekah Brooks, former News of the World editor, is now Chief Executive of News International. It has been suggested that the paper’s closure is designed in part to take the heat off her. The Economist refers to the “intense, almost familial bond” she enjoys with Murdoch senior, but even then the idea that a profitable newspaper was sacrificed to save her skin seems far-fetched. It is difficult to imagine she will survive, though she hardly became the most powerful woman in British print journalism without a thick skin and a great deal of tenacity.
It has been a dramatic day for Public Opinion, and yet another example of the impact of new media (especially Twitter) on popular mobilisation. We have seen a definite power shift; a media empire once thought to be able to decide elections has been humbled. It could not have happened without the quick and convenient means of co-ordinated protest offered by Twitter, nor without the effective targeting of two of a newspaper’s main Achilles’ heels; their position as relatively unprofitable components of broader multi-media corporations, and their structural dependence on advertising revenue. New tools, old targets. What has changed in this case is not the underlying purpose of public protest, but its power relative to the institutions against which it is arraigned.