Would Murdoch cut NotW adrift?

Rupert MurdochAs public rage about the allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World grows and an advertising boycott begins to bite, is it possible that Rupert Murdoch may cut the Sunday tabloid adrift to limit the damage to the rest of his empire? And should we be worried about media ad boycotts?
There's no doubting the public rage over these latest allegations. As Media commentator and former tabloid editor Roy Greenslade said on our sister site Huffpost UK today, "no incident has captured the public imagination" like this one, and there's a vibrant boycott campaign running on social media.

Ford pulls out

We reported late yesterday that the Ford corporation had pulled its advertising from the paper. This is the current situation with NotW advertisers at 11.40am on Wednesday 6 July.

  • Pulled ads: Ford, Renault, Cadbury's, Mumsnet, NatWest, Coca Cola, Lloyds
  • Considering position: T-Mobile, nPower, Halifax, Dixons, Orange, Vauxhall, Vodafone, Proctor & Gamble, Sainsbury's, First Choice, Co-op
  • Awaiting results of the police investigation: Virgin, Tesco, Brand Alley, Easyjet
  • No comment: Boots
Only one of the advertisers has confirmed it will not be pulled its spend, and that's supermarket group Morrisons. It said: "Our position is very clear, we're continuing to advertise in the News of the World." Interestingly, Mumsnet have also cancelled a contract with Sky and are removing all News International adverts from their website.

BSkyB takeover

All of which raises the question of how far this will go before the NoTW brand is seen as so toxic and so dangerous to Rupert Murdoch's other ambitions that it has to be sacrificed. My colleague Guy Clapperton has already questioned whether the Sky takeover of BSkyB should still go ahead, for example (see link below).

I asked media expert and former editor of UK Press Gazette Jon Slattery for his view on whether Murdoch would be likely to cast the tabloid adrift. He told me: ""I think it would be very difficult to cut the News of the World adrift and contain the phone hacking story.

"As was highlighted by the Information Commissioner five years ago many Fleet Street papers have used private investigators. With new claims about payments made by News International to the police this story is going to grow and grow and get even more legs when the findings of the police inquiry into the affair are made public.

"The whole story has entered a new arena now that it has emerged that the families of murder victims and those killed in the 7/7 London bombings have had their phones hacked. This will lead to more public revulsion and political pressure for an inquiry."

David Cameron

Even so, Murdoch has much to deal with as revelations continue to come out. Former NoTW editor Andy Coulson, who went on to be David Cameron's Director of Communications, appears to be briefing that he is being used to distract attention from the phone hacking allegations as the mood gets nastier inside the ranks of News International.

The bottom line is that Murdoch will not want to lose money, either directly via the paper or indirectly through association with the paper. And he's proved he will be ruthless in defending his income streams and his profits. Although, as was shown with The Sun after Hillsborough, he's also prepared to play the long game.

Free press

Two important, and potentially worrying points, also emerge. The first is the question of how far it is good for commercial pressures to influence editorial direction. As Jon Slattery says: "Boycotts by advertisers can be very effective but it does blur the lines between editorial being independent of influence by advertisers which is an important part of a free press."

If these allegations are proved, and NI do not seem to be denying them, then it's clearly not only bad practice but morally indefensible – and that's what's fuelling public anger and disgust. But there are also a lot of political opponents of Murdoch and the NI line piling in too.

I've made it clear I'm no friend of Murdoch or the editorial line most of his outlets take, but I worry about commercial pressures being used to settle political scores. And I also worry about the lurking threat of government regulation of the press, something which this whole affair brings closer.

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