The collapse of a major newspaper is fascinating to watch unfold, but any suggestion that this is an unprecedented media scandal the likes of which has never before been seen is, simply, balderdash. Take away the trapping of modern media tools, and the situation in the News of the World newsroom is revealed to have been nearly identical to what was happening in 1947 Los Angeles, during the investigation of the murder of Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia.
The News of the World folded, not because it lacked readers, but in a desperate effort by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to deflect political fallout from an escalating newsroom phone hacking scandal that included interfering in the investigation of the murders of children and spying on the families of dead soldiers and victims of terrorism.
Top British politicians appear to have had knowledge of these crimes and to have been intimately involved with some perpetrators. Further, editors have confessed to paying large sums to the Metropolitan Police for scoops on celebrities and crime victims. The scandal is an evolving thing, with fresh revelations coming by the hour.
Popular opinion holds that the entire working staff of the paper has been sacrificed to save the skin of former editor, current News Corporation chief executive, Rebekah Wade, an intimate of Murdoch and of Prime Minister David Cameron. Meanwhile, the entire affair is subject to passionate commentary by rival journalists, stalked celebrities and the scandalized public via Twitter and other social media.
But how does this relate to the Black Dahlia and 1940s yellow journalism?
For Rupert Murdoch, powerful and much-despised king of the yellow media, read William Randolph Hearst, whose Examiner was the best capitalized paper in post-war Los Angeles, and whose reporters did much more to further the Black Dahlia murder investigation than anyone else, including the detectives of the LAPD. For ruthless Murdoch editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade, read Hearst’s top execs James Richardson and Aggie Underwood.
For the Metropolitan Police, implicated in the current privileged-information-for-cash scandal, read the Los Angeles Police Department, who were so deep in Hearst’s pocket that they didn’t balk when Examiner city editor James Richardson invited detectives to join reporters in the newsroom for the opening of murder victim Elizabeth Short’s missing luggage, which a reporter had located at the downtown Greyhound station and illegally purchased from the bag check desk. The evidence inside was promptly photographed for publication in the paper, and only then was handed off to detectives.
For Milly Dowler’s long-suffering parents, newly victimized by the news that their kidnapped daughter was not alive and deleting her own mobile phone messages in 2002, but rather her phone was being checked by News of the World hacks, read Phoebe Short, Elizabeth’s mother, tricked into telling a telephoning reporter all about her 22-year-old daughter with the ruse that Elizabeth had won a beauty contest. Only when she had nothing left to say did the reporter confess that in truth her daughter had been found naked and hacked in two in a vacant lot.
In both instances, 1947 Los Angeles and 2011 London, the motivation was the same: to sell newspapers, and advertising, by appealing to the most base instincts of the general public. Then as now, people are fascinated by stories of sex and violence, and willing to pay for the publication that gives them seemingly factual information they can’t get elsewhere. Reporters have always been able to justify their intrusions by laying their work on the altar of Truth. And unscrupulous publishers have always been willing to pay whatever it takes to hack into private lives of public people, to feed the information hunger.
As the dust settles in England over this latest manifestation of a very old story, the real question is why gossip is so powerful a thing, alluring enough to make fortunes and bring down empires. Why are we so interested in other peoples’ private lives?