Well, it’s pretty fair to say that no one saw that coming.
No sooner had News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch touched down in the UK on Friday to take the reins at his beleaguered red-top the Sun than the staff of that paper were basking in the warm glow of his unique, “the-gang’s-all-here” management style. At the click of a mouse, a memo swept through the inboxes of Wapping like a gust of spring air, dispelling what had been – as PM noted last week – an atmosphere of fetid, pressure-cooker intensity.
In addition to its Monday-to-Saturday run, the memo revealed, Sunday would be the Sun’s new stomping ground – providing readers with a replacement for the News of the World, hatched from the same journalistic gene pool. All suspensions on journalists arrested during Metropolitan Police operations to probe phone hacking, computer hacking and police payments were lifted: surely the most bizarre re-interpretation of the order “All leave is cancelled” that we are likely to hear in our lifetimes. But, then again, all hands will have to be sped to the pumps if the imminent Sun on Sunday is to emerge on time from what is bound to be a high-octane production schedule.
One big, happy family?
From a managerial viewpoint, though, perhaps the most important comments contained in the memo were those that stressed paper’s driving values. The Sun, said Murdoch, “is a part of me and is one of our proudest achievements [that] occupies a unique and important position within News Corporation” – a bold statement indeed, as it accounts for just a tiny fraction of the company’s overall structure. “Our duty,” Murdoch continued, “is to expand one of the world’s most widely read newspapers and reach even more people than ever before. Having a winning paper is the best answer to our critics. I am even more determined to see the Sun continue to fight for its readers and its beliefs.”
And that, apparently, was that: a zero-hostility policy towards journalists under suspicion – confirmed by a matey personal visit to the newsroom – was established; and the paper’s proprietor, readers and beliefs were drawn in a holy triangle of arms-around-shoulders unity and indefatigable purpose: not merely business as usual, but more business in the most unusual times. In a trice, the budding employee revolt stirred by Trevor Kavanagh’s broadside against News Corp subsidiary News International’s handling of the probes was quelled. Whether it will be for the long term cannot yet be judged, but it is clear that, in the sort term, Murdoch’s wild card was played with astute cunning.
Eye on the establishment
Meanwhile, across London and in the backstreets of Soho, another publishing great – Ian Hislop – was enjoying his own time in the sun. According to Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures published last week, satirical rag Private Eye – perhaps the most high-profile and persistent scourge of Murdoch’s empire – has seen its sales reach a 25-year high, averaging almost 230,000 copies per issue in the second half of its 50th-Anniversary year, 2011. The figures stand as a powerful vindication of Hislop’s editorship, and most importantly, the driving principles of the publication itself – values that have been built to outlast whoever happens to be at the helm at any particular time.
Hislop’s era began in 1986, but since then, very little about the magazine’s aesthetic or outlook has changed from when his predecessor Richard Ingrams was in charge. Despite the availability of a host of sophisticated design packages that have taken publishing by storm over the past two decades, Private Eye still looks and feels very much like an upscale university newspaper, with dense columns of text and scratchy cartoons hurled across the pages in a style that ranks function over form. But given the magazine’s role as a divining rod for sloth or incompetence among organisations and hypocrisy among public figures, this guerrilla-production ethos is undoubtedly the best fit. Anything neater or smarter would just look too “establishment” by half.
Ahead of the curve
Private Eye has also pushed its sales by using its online presence as a driver towards the print publication rather than a direct match. In contrast to many magazine websites – which harvest generous batches of reviews, interviews and features from their print counterparts – private-eye.co.uk restricts its plundering to article intros, key jokes and damning, “fancy-that” statistics, all designed to lure readers to their newsagents so they can part excitedly with their £1.50.
Over the past two years, Private Eye has blazed a trail with its critical coverage of News International titles up to, during and beyond the watershed of the phone-hacking saga – its coverage of the topic rivalled only by that of the Guardian. When MPs crammed into the Commons to debate the issue in the summer of last year, following reports that the News of the World had phone-hacked victims of crime and terrorism, the resulting press coverage showed just how far ahead of the curve Private Eye had been on the story.
So, as the effects of his memo sink into Wapping’s footsoldiers, Murdoch – nicknamed the ‘Dirty Digger’ by Private Eye – is still far from bulletproof. He may feel stronger for the time being… but so is the voice of his most dedicated critic.