“Gotcha!” That was the gleeful reaction of one Labour MP when he heard that one of Rupert Murdoch’s oldest flagships had been downed by the Exocet that is the hacking scandal.
It wasn’t the demise of the paper itself that was the source of Falklands-style jubilation. In fact, many MPs of all stripes have a soft spot for the News of the World’s Lobby team and felt a pang of sympathy for political editor David Wooding as he looked like a nightshifter handed his P45 at the factory gates last night. But they still felt the sight of Rupert Murdoch being 'doorstepped' by reporters in the greenery of Idaho was deliciously ironic.
Indeed, for some Tory, Labour and Lib Dem MPs, the real News of the (Westminster) World is that the demise of Britain’s biggest selling Sunday tabloid could herald a far bigger victory: the beginning of the end of the power of the press.
The hope among these ministers and backbenchers alike is that the momentous events of the past few days will permanently shift the balance away from the unelected to the elected. This isn’t just schadenfreude at journalism’s Duckhouse Moment. Their wider thesis is that the printed press is facing a decline as terminal as that which wiped out the coalmines, cotton mills and steelworks in recent decades.
With most newspaper circulation charts going south, they see the broadcast media – complete with its statutory obligations on neutrality – and even the internet as the alternative future.
The appointment of Craig Oliver as the very first non-newspaperman in the Downing Street communications hotseat was seen as further proof of the slow haemorrhaging of power away from print. Twitter has become most people’s breaking news feed, Facebook is used by political parties for direct mail-style ads, the email addresses of constituents are harvested like gold dust.
The leaders' debates certainly rammed home the dominance of television in the 2010 general election campaign. Overnight, Nick Clegg bypassed newspapers that had for years treated his party as an irrelevance at best. In the states, both the President and Sarah Palin regularly try to go over the heads of the mainstream media with web feeds and Tweets. Chuck in the fact that HuffPo just launched this week and that online boycotts of the News of the Screws proved remarkably successful and you can see why some backbenchers are getting excited.
And yet in response to all of this wishful thinking that is infecting Westminster, I can do no better than use a line a more famous Waugh once coined: upto a point, Lord Copper. The press remains incredibly powerful, not least because it’s the place that (non-phone hacked) exclusives are broken and where the sheer numbers of consumers cannot be ignored. Five million people every day buy the Sun and the Mail, so it’s no wonder that Ken Clarke is forced to U-turn on sentencing or IDS is given extra cash to help women pensioners. And for all the predictions of apocalypse, print continues to be more popular than ever, providing it is free: Metro is now one of the biggest papers in the UK and the Standard is soaring again.
A broadcaster recently told me that I’d be amazed at just how in thrall to the press the TV and radio channels still are. Go into any editorial meeting in the BBC or Sky and staff have their faces buried in newsprint. One No10 insider confides that all messages are now subtly tailored to suit three different markets: print, broadcast and online. “We may not always get a fair hearing, but we’d be mad to ignore newspapers. If I had a fiver for every time I’d seen the obituary of print, I’d be very, very rich,” adds one party media chief.
Indeed, any shrinkage of the newspaper market could only serve to concentrate power in the hands of the fittest that survive.
Given the power of the printed media of the Murdoch empire, it’s all the more extraordinary that Ed Miliband decided to bet the farm this week on a gamble that the phone hacking affair would swing his way. Miliband may well have lost any hope of the backing of any of the News International stable in 2015, but he’s achieved what every party leader wants: being in tune with and even ahead of public opinion.
When the news came through yesterday of the closure of the News of the World, the Labour leader was in his Commons office, working on today's speech on media regulation. “There was no sense of celebration,” said an aide. Instead, there was a keen perception that the voters would feel lowly reporters were being made to pay for the mistakes of the Murdoch boss class who had sanctioned the lowest forms of journalism. Miliband’s assured response has killed off any wild thoughts in the Tea Room of mischief-making at this year’s party conference.
For his part, David Cameron was remarkably relaxed yesterday. He led Cabinet through a brief discussion of the hacking inquiries and was determined to appear with the Sun’s police bravery winners. Indeed, he shunned the Spectator summer party in favour of the tabloid’s big event last night. “It was business as usual. You’re not going to get the PM sitting in Downing Street in a worried state,” said one insider. Cameron even found time to stage a ‘brush by’ meeting with Mitt Romney, who was in the Cabinet Office talking to national security adviser Peter Ricketts. The PM has been working on just how he will respond, should we get the news that Andy Coulson has been arrested. I understand he will stress just how thoroughly he sought assurances from Coulson before he was appointed and took what he was told at face value. Police payments were not seen as on the radar, while hacking was flatly denied.
That’s not to say it won’t be politically very difficult for the PM today and for the next few days. One minister whispers: “Brooks must go, Cameron must divert BSkyB to the Competition Commission and must hope his close social links with Brooks don’t get out.” And no, that wasn’t a Lib Dem.
Some MPs see Cameron’s connection to the Brookses and the Freuds and the Murdochs as a real error of judgement. One describes the Chipping Norton set as “Oxfordshire trailer trash…horse trailers that is”.
For the Lib Dems, they’ve not done badly out of the affair. Chris Huhne’s pre-election warnings about Coulson look vindicated, while Nick Clegg has been proactive in pushing both a judge-led inquiry – he rang Cameron while he was in Afghanistan to recommend one - and a pause on the BSkyB deal. “Nick has had an easier had to play on this,” says one source. “It’s a bit of a relief, given some of the hands he’s been dealt.”
Even Vince Cable, who performed a painful act of political self-castration before Christmas, is looking more chipper. Jeremy Hunt began the year in by cracking a joke at a Lobby lunch about the two big media stories of the day: Cable’s Telegraph honey-trap sting and Max Mosley’s privacy case. “One is about two women who wanted to tie an old man up in knots... and the other is about Max Mosley,” Hunt jibed. With today’s ‘pause’, Cable may be having the last laugh.
So while it would be premature to claim that the press’s latest troubles have weakened it long term, the BSkyB decision and the looming inquiry may underline a sense among some in Westminster that the balance of power has tilted a little their way.
It’s also perhaps worth remembering what happened after Stanley Baldwin uttered his memorable phrase condemning newspaper tycoons who exercised “power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. Baldwin spoke as his ally Alfred Duff Cooper fought a by-election against a candidate backed vigorously by media magnates Lords Beaverbrook (aka Lord Copper) and Rothermere. Duff Cooper won handsomely.
However, given that today’s Coalition is run by pop-savvy fortysomethings of the Jam Generation, maybe the last word should go to the Jam itself. Its single News of the World had the lines:“Power, pop!/ More than often its just a comic, not much more/Don't take it too serious - not many do/ Read between the lines and you'll find the truth/Read all about it, read all about it - news of the world….”
If Rebekah Brooks does eventually stand down, the harlot’s power may well have popped. For now at least.