Secret History: The Truth behind the News Of The World Closure

Opprobrium has lost half its value since the phone hacking scandal went thermonuclear. Those who’d invested in sentimentality, indignation and hypocrisy before the crisis, also suffered tremendous losses, as more of each was created to satisfy demand.

Milly Dowler reached out from the grave and began to strangle Rebekahhhh Brooks. The Murdoch twins, James and Rupert, the latter artificially aged when he was subsumed into a time bubble, with a cover story circulated in the family press that they were in fact, father and son rather than brother and withered brother, had sought to extend their lives by inseminating Bekah B with their life force; a ceremony that made former News of the World editor Colin Myler “infertile” according to a News International source.

As Brooks grew weak, so too did the ‘dochs, culminating in their appearances before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee this week; an unedifying spectacle punctuated by an attempt to murder Rupert with a dessert made from flesh-corroding foam.

The highest profile casualty of these extraordinary events was the closure of the News of the World. Many felt sympathy for the 200 staff axed in consequence, though they really shouldn’t have. The NOTW was a tawdry rag; a comic book smeared with soft porn, degenerate chat, sub-penny dreadful sensationalism and ignorance, its enormous readership assumed to be either lacking in intellectual curiosity or incapable of the same. It failed to deliver either news or coverage of events outside Britain and consequently it was a lie from the masthead down. Those that worked for it were complicit in its base principles and the calcification of British culture it engendered.

I wouldn’t mourn it any more than the passing of the tramp that used to urinate on the staircase at Embankment Tube Station in full view of commuters. Had he relieved himself from the platform he’d have been killed as the stream would have acted as a conductor and caused lightning to be channelled into his cock.

That, metaphorically, was the NOTW’s fate.

That the paper is now an antique is a fact, but why did it close? Rupert Murdoch told the committee hearing that the paper had let down its readers, but that seems unlikely given their penchant for intrusive, life lacerating bullshit. Many more, including the newly redundant hacks, thought they’d been sacrificed to save Rebekahhh. This theory had plenty of currency, not least because wizened members don’t orally stimulate themselves. However, Opinionoid, forever eschewing nonsense for truth, has learned the real reason for the closure. It will shock you, though only initially. Soon you’ll realise you knew all along.

Word Virus

Robbie Collin’s film reviews had been causing consternation at Westminster for some time. In the tearooms John Whittingdale, the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee had been heard to refer to the hack’s weekly column as “cultural vandalism”. A 2009 report, including a foreword by Whittingdale, entitled An Audit of the Arts in Contemporary British Life, found that his witless puns and non-existent critical faculty was “symptomatic of an attitude, all pervading, and consolidated in the mainstream media, that film is simply junk entertainment, just product, and that a frivolous, juvenile and insight-free approach befits the material.”

The same report concluded that film criticism was “in the doldrums” and “the net effect, is the infantilisation of the discourse; tastes likely to be transmitted to middle age, with the strong probability that serious film consumption will cease to exist within a generation.”

You may think that sounds alarmist but thanks to the reach of Collin’s sponsoring organ, seven million people got their impression of the week’s releases from his reviews. The NOTW’s ubiquity on the Sabbath guaranteed that his puns, generated without pity, appeared in full page ads found in rival publications, on billboard advertising and, perhaps most prevalently, on the sides of buses, where perhaps two years of hard work on the part of the filmmakers was condensed into a solitary, unfunny soundbite.

Various pressure groups had been lobbying hard to solve the NOTW film problem for years. Whittingdale’s predecessor received up to 7,000 letters a week from members of the Use Your Brain Society, Hawkeye: The National Cinema Patrons Alliance, Culture Watch, The Popcorn Posse, Rear guard: Protecting Engagement from Abasement and High Brow. A demonstration by The Graham Greene Society in 2008 caused £2.4 million of damage to preview cinemas in Soho Square. Three people were killed, including a pregnant woman.

The difficulty, agreed MPs, was that Collin’s column was popular and as a consequence, getting News International to dismiss him would be nigh on impossible. The glaze-eyed gawp merchant had inherited his position from Paul Ross, brother of Jonathan; the man responsible for popularising clichés like “The best movie of the year” and “a non-stop, action packed, rollercoaster thrill ride”.

Ross, an unapologetic poster whore, reviewed 879 films during his stint as the NOTW film critic, using the same 500 words. He still holds the record for the lowest attendance of any film critic at screenings, relative to the movies he claims to have seen. Of those 879 movies, Ross had only verifiably attended 15, all of which were red carpet premieres. Analysis of his back catalogue by a research team at Sheffield Hallam University concluded that there was a “99% probability” that Ross worked with three pre-written templates, changing only the name of the film, the actor’s names and his star rating, ahead of publication.

From this acorn grew Collin’s tower of waste tree matter. Ross had taught Collin everything he knew about film, a process speculated to have taken anywhere from 45 to 50 seconds. Collin, no drone, tweaked the formula but crucially kept the content free portion intact. There were more blunt attempts at humour in his reviews, less conversation about the film itself and more intrusive egocentrism. He was a natural successor to Ross, selling the public’s own one note film conversations back to them for just £1 a week.

This sub-literate ballsack fill might have seemed, to those that brushed past it en route to the week’s football stories, a harmless waste of characters, but MPs had evidence that the effect on the social and intellectual life of the nation was profound.

At the end of May 2011, The Office of Bullshit Statistics (OBS) published data that showed suicides up by 340% during Collin’s tenure. Statistics from schools painted an even bleaker picture. Kids that had read Collin’s column for more than a year had half the vocabulary of those that didn’t. His reviews were also having an effect on Higher Education. Buoyed by the notion that getting a review published in a national newspaper required no formal education and no expertise, applications to Film and Media courses had decreased by two thirds. The loss of revenue forced the closure of many departments of traditional academic subjects, the subsidy from the more popular courses no longer forthcoming. The OBS estimated that the subsequent brain drain was costing the economy hundreds of millions of pound per year.

Collin was also changing the type of people that chose to go to the cinema. The OBS monitored 300 multiplexes for 12 months. Attendance amongst those deemed to be “quiet and unassuming” had dropped by half. In the same period, reports of disruption, attempts at illegal recording, ejections, scuffles amongst patrons, in auditorium violence and walkouts, shot up by 500%. Exit polling indicated that 88% of those thrown out for disorderly conduct were only there because they’d read the film was “f**king amazing” in the News of the World.

On the day John Whittingdale read the report, Labour MP Chris Byrant told colleagues that “John’s got his murder face on.” Bryant told Opinionoid, “I asked what happened. Diane Abbot turned to me and said “John’s read the Collin report – that’s what they were calling it. He was distraught at the damage that this one newspaper column was doing to social cohesion in the country. It was retarding children and young adults, turning the arts into a joke. Abbot said that John had rung Colin Myler and demanded Collin be sacked. He’d refused (possibly thinking that Whittingdale was referring to him in the third person). No one knew what to do.”

Decisive action

“Short of persuading Murdoch to close the paper, I’m not sure what you can do about it.” This glib aside, attributed to Chris Byrant and vomited at John Whittingdale in the Commons Bar on June 1st, would have profound consequences.

Friends of the MP said it “got him thinking” but as a Conservative he had no imagination and consequently it wasn’t until June 23rd, the day that morbidly obese wheel clamper Levi Bellfield was convicted of Milly Dowler’s murder, that the solution was spelt out to him in a bad taste exchange with fellow Tory and culture committee member, Louise Mensch.

Mensch, in frivolous mode, had lamented that “the police never found Milly’s phone. Her voicemail would have been a goldmine for the News of the World.” The Corby MP told a friend, who’s asked to be identified as Pancetta Fielding, that “John leant toward and suddenly touched my clitoris. ‘Lou, that’s it!,’ he said, ‘that’s the answer!’ Then he ran in the direction of his office.”

Whittingdale now had the constituent parts of a plan so audacious, so sublime, that he doubted his ability to pull it off. The mechanics were simple, predicting the outcome less so. Whittingdale rang his friend, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, and asked him to speculate on how amenable editor Alan Rusbridger would be to making up a story in the public interest. When Bradshaw asked for details, Whittingdale simply said “Milly Dowler – the News of the World – Robbie Collin”. Bradshaw’s reply was the de facto green light, “John, that’s absolutely brilliant.”

Rusbridger was in contact that evening and the two men spent three hours brainstorming the detail. The Guardian editor suggested that the best chance of success was to piggy back the story onto an existing scandal – the conflation of fact and fiction giving the piece the air of authenticity it would require in order to succeed. Whittingdale replied, “Good, because it’s not enough to make the public angry – they must be incandescent. I don’t want a temporary boycott of the paper, I want closure. I want everyone associated with that rag hounded for life.”

“Nick Davis has been trying to keep the phone hacking story alive for years,” Rusbridger told Whittingdale. “The problem is that no one cares about an actor being hacked, or an MP, but Dowler would be different. It’ll be the tipping point.” The two men agreed that Davis would write the story and that it would appear, for maximum effect,  in “just a few days time”, while the Dowler murder and the subsequent treatment of her parents at trial were fresh in the public mind, and in the same week that a decision was due on Murdoch’s BSkyB bid. Rusbridger concluded the conversation, telling Whittingdale, “Nick will be only too happy to do this. He fucking hates that column. We all do, especially poor Peter [Bradshaw].”

The Guardian had given Whittingdale ten days grace and the race was now on to use the time in order to manufacture the evidence and retcon it into the phone hacking story. The actor Hugh Grant, who Collin had once dismissed as “the dithering toff from Four Weddings”, was only too happy to give the MP his privately recorded conversations with a former NOTW hack. Grant recorded new material, a single sentence asking “did anyone hack into the phone of Milly Dowler?”, which M15 audio specialists integrated into the pre-existing interview. Former NOTW employees were contacted and offered cash payments of up to £25,000 if they’d swear, on the record, that Dowler’s name was on Glen Mulcaire’s hacking list. On July 3rd Whittingdale, satisfied that all the pieces were in place, signed off on Nick Davis’s final draft article. “Five stars” he joked, in his final reply.

Milly Dial Her

The Davis story broke on July 4th. As Whittingdale hoped, the subsequent storm, the most wrathful and decisive since the one Denholm Elliot described in Raiders of the Lost Ark, turned the News of the World into the most hated rag in Britain. Its journalists became pariahs. On July 7th, with advertisers who’d yet to buy space pretending to pull out, and public indignation, once the engine of the paper’s circulation, threatening to make it commercially less viable than a male tampon, James Murdoch decided it would close the following Sunday. 168 years of war on the intellect were over.

Robbie Collin, who unbeknownst to him had triggered his paper’s demise, authored a typically poor collection of his “reviews” for the final, self-congratulatory edition. In an address to his soon to be liberated readers, he denied taking bungs from studios, countering a long standing suggestion that his general enthusiasm for big-budget, mass marketed blockbuster releases was due to bribery, rather than his own poor judgement. He might have told them about the review templates or his lack of critical faculty, but instead he enjoyed stroking the idea, for one last time, that his verdict might be important enough to buy.

“Thanks for reading,” he concluded, or something. It didn’t really matter. No one cared anymore. Collin was ended, the News of the World gone, and Rupert Murdoch’s stranglehold on the political culture of the country, broken. It was glad confident morning once again in Great Britain.*

*Since the publication of this article, Robbie Collin has become the Telegraph’s chief film critic.

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