Did social media bring down the News of the World?
On Friday night I found myself watching BBC2’s Newsnight programme (a topical news analysis programme). Unsurprisingly, the closure of the News of the World was still dominating the news agenda. A number of discussions took place into various angles of this issue. I was struck by remarks made by Justine Roberts the co-founder and CEO of Mumsnet. Essentially, one of her opening remarks was that News International was forced to close the News of the World because of social media. Great, I thought, now the angry mob has bigger pitchforks, more flaming torches and a megaphone. One would have to be implausibly naïve to truly believe News International had bowed to Consumer Pressure 2.0 – of course that isn’t how it happened. Did social media amplify people’s voices? Well, if it didn’t something would have gone terribly wrong with one of the cornerstones of the new social order. Do big brands kowtow to such amplification? No. Of course not. This industry (by which I mean all things smedia and digital) is still very much in its infancy. Any business that is serious about listening to its customers, understanding and delighting them, ought to be using social media. There is a clear three-pronged strategy most businesses have adopted (or ought to adopt) where social media is concerned – listen, analyse, engage. But the hard facts are, very few brands have got this right. If there’s one sector that ought to be fearful, suspicious and maybe even hostile in the face of social media it would be the newspaper industry. They’ve seen circulation and advertising revenues go the way of all flesh in the aftermath of mass adoption of the internet. Within a few days of some appalling revelations about phone hacking and related activities, there was indeed a huge outcry on twitter and Facebook, not to mention countless blog posts. Some advertisers pulled out of the News of the World, but not all of them. News International’s decision to pull the plug on the News of the World was, of course, a damage limitation strategy (albeit one of the worst I can remember in its execution). Its roots are in an organisation where journalists, editors and their managers felt they had a right to break the law and access the private lives of well-known and the everyday people. Its branches extended into police corruption. It has blossomed into a tangle of compromised politicians, journalists-turned-PRs, and private investigators receiving six-figure sums from more than one source in the newspaper world. If I was the person ultimately responsible for sorting this mess out, God knows I’d want to bury it all in a deep dark hole too. And as quickly as possible. But I might, just might, be tempted to bury those who had created the mess at the same time. Which hasn’t happened here. Maybe it’s the residue of my journalistic spider senses that makes me want to know why not. William Cobbett, the English essayist and reformer of the 18th and 19th Century, once said: “I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach.” When people are hungry – in a literal or figurative sense – they are more likely to rise up. Do something about that hunger and you can pacify them. Often without giving into all their demands. News International wants to buy the whole of BSkyB – the UK satellite TV company it already owns a chunk of. Due to concerns of media plurality (NI owns a lot of UK newspapers) the deal has to be given the green light by the UK regulators. The last thing Rupert Murdoch needed right now is a high profile scandal concerning elements of his media empire breaking the law and offending common decency. Throwing the News of the World to the wolves is perhaps the least worst option for him. Under these circumstances I expect it wasn’t a difficult call to make.