Editorial: a thousand witnesses are better than conscience

The closure of any newspaper is a cause for sadness in any country that prides itself, as Britain does, on its possession of a free, plural and powerful press.


There is no doubt that the travesties against journalism perpetrated by a previous regime at the News of the World warrant severe retribution. But that retribution should be exacted by British courts against the individuals proven through due process to have broken the laws that govern journalistic practice. We insist that so-called justice should not be served by the governing elite of News International against a largely blameless newsroom. Neither can we accept, as rumours grow that the Sun will become a seven-day newspaper, that the sacrificial offering up of a name should assuage the public’s discontent. These wounds are too deep to cauterise.

Too many questions remain. Rebekah Brooks remains. Any editor who fails to query her reporters on the sources of their stories, as she claims, is guilty of a gross dereliction of duty. Rebekah Brooks is not incompetent. We must ask why the Murdochs consider her continued involvement with News International to be of greater value than the retention of a 168-year old brand with the largest readership in the UK and a staff of 200. It is hard to believe that Rupert Murdoch, a man not previously associated with the prioritisation of sentimental attachment over good business sense, would allow so destructively divisive a figure to continue simply because he enjoys her company to dinner.

Among those who are known to enjoy her company at dinner is this country’s prime minister, who appointed her successor as the editor of the News of the World to be his director of communications. That man, Andy Coulson, is again being questioned by the police. Following his press conference this morning, we know now that David Cameron is among those few people in this country who believe that the duties of an editor do not include checking the sources on his lead stories. On Wednesday he wrung his hands at Prime Minister’s Questions and has since presented the unconvincing argument that he took at face value Mr Coulson’s protestations of ignorance at the practices being perpetrated under his leadership. The prime minister, like other senior figures in the scandal, has resorted to pleading incompetence.

The prime minister ignored the advice of many around him when appointing Mr Coulson. We offer our own voices to those of many others by urging him now to recognise that the covering-up of a scandal is more likely to cause irretrievable damage to his reputation than the airing of dirty laundry. The promised inquiries must have full access to all relevant documents. If those documents are found to have been destroyed or mislaid then action must be taken against those responsible to the full extent of the law.

There are two issues at stake here. The first is that of journalistic standards. Among the most shocking aspects of this affair is how institutionalised certain practices became despite their being unquestionably unethical. Even more worrying is the fact that this tarnished newspaper, and the company that governs it, came to believe themselves unanswerable to anyone. Protected by a political elite too afraid to make an enemy of an institution that trumpets its capacity to turn elections, and who the police, for reasons yet to be made clear, proved unable to properly investigate.

As a paper that prided itself on its ability to uncover scandal is brought down, we must ask again, weary that our era has worn Juvenal’s phrase into a cliche, who it is that watches the watchman. The answer is that there must be many watchmen: only a varied, multivocal press can regulate itself. The Guardian, latterly supported by other newspapers across the political spectrum, has succeeded through its tireless efforts in exposing this scandal. And the very company exposed for an abuse of power made possible by its dominant market position now seeks further, unprecedented domination of the British media. The prime minister must redeem himself, and drag good out of this sordid affair: News Corporation must not be allowed to take over BSkyB.

This editorial was published on 8 July 2011