Media folk hate a no-news week, there's nothing worse. By now, News International must be fairly begging for one. No sooner had the beleaguered group rallied by announcing the launch of the Sunday edition of The Sun than it was back on the defensive, with Cherie Blair announcing that she was going to sue the group for invasion of privacy.
To The Sun first. As your correspondent noted last year, somewhere in some interminable News Limited piece, the closure of News of the World was a disaster for News Corporation, and the News International UK wing, but did give it one possible advantage – to consolidate The Sun brand across seven days, thereby potentially strengthening the readership, and also achieving some production economies of scale as well.
Though all Fleet Street papers run their Sundays as autonomous units – save for the Mirror, which tried to consolidate with disastrous results – only TheSun/News of the World, and The Guardian/Observer, had different mastheads, the Sundays in question having been independent papers until recently.
Guardian execs made a concerted effort to kill The Observer when they were expanding the website into the biggest money pit since Pets.com, but failed due to a wave of protest at the idea of effacing one of the world's oldest newspapers.
Murdoch, or whoever is running News International, had less sentiment and fewer options as regards NotW, offering up the jobs of nearly 200 staff in a somewhat pharaonic human sacrifice to protect the career of flame-haired executrix Rebekah Brooks. The move provoked outrage and near mutiny among the staff, and began the process by which serious amounts of information began to leak towards the police.
Those who do not get their jobs back in the new paper will be far from thrilled with suggestions that the replacement of NotW with the SS (it will simply be called The Sun) had been planned all along, and the whole performance was something of a charade. But for every such story there are contradictory ones: that the SoS was announced as soon as there were mass arrests at The Sun, and talk of closure began.
Others suggest that Murdoch has used the new paper as part of an internal war in News Corporation, against US execs, who want to get out of UK print altogether. Round and round it goes. In any case, the speed with which the paper has been announced and then launched – it hits the streets this weekend – has taken everyone by surprise.
Murdoch has announced the SoS will be more family-oriented than the NotW, which, in its final days, abetted by hacking, had created a toxic mix of celebrity obsession, prurience, puritan moralising and the channelled resentment and anger of its readers.
In a Britain where any possibility of class mobility has been pretty much abandoned, at the same time as the class of minimally talented super-rich celebrocrats has vastly expanded, there was phenomenal money to be made from a paper, which obsessed over celebs and tried to ruin their lives.
Reading NotW was always a depressing experience, and doing so reminded you of one thing: that the people who did it by choice must have been even more depressed and angry than the paper itself in order to get any sort of charge out of it.
There was no chance of starting something like that from scratch, and the new "family-oriented" SS will conform with Rupert's new-found role as defender of Christian values – to say nothing of his succes d'estime as the Andre Breton of tweeting, sending out bursts of automatically written haiku ("cheese good shovel antlers but not if Datsun melts. Wake up Antarctica! #michigan primary") and sometimes, eerily, just his own name.
The new Sun is being flogged for dear life on TV and elsewhere at the moment, and there are reports it has offered major advertisers huge sweetheart deals on its first four weeks, in order to get them in. The main worry of course is that there is no audience for the paper. When NotW ceased, 1 million of its 2.7 million buyers stopped taking a Sunday paper altogether.
Those who switched have no good reason to go back – especially if they want the NotW mix, which can now be found in the Daily Star Sunday, a paper that makes the Sunday Herald Sun look like the proceedings of the Royal Society. Doubtless the paper will get good initial sales from curiosity, but many of those may be additional purchases.
The closure of NotW exacerbated what was a continuing process anyway – people giving up papers. Since buying a paper is, in the last analysis, a habit, the single worst thing to do is to interrupt publishing, even for a while.
The Sunday Sun will provide, if nothing else, a test of the elasticity of demand for newspapers. Should it go badly, it will be another weight to attach to Rupert's feet – others are labelled "MySpace", "Lachlan", "James", "One.Tel", "Leveson", "hacking", "Milly Dowler", "James", "James", etc – before they roll him over the side.
Amid all this, the last thing they needed was another case for hacking being launched against them – and especially not by Cherie Blair, who has engaged Atkins Thomson, the firm used by most previous high-profile hacking victims, to handle the case. The new action comes just as a range of existing cases – such as that launched by former deputy PM John Prescott – have been settled, thus suggesting there's some tag-team action going on.
For News, the Blair case is another potential nightmare, not only because the hacking was comprehensive and long term – feeding a string of Cherie stories across the New Labour years – but also because hacking the wife of a sitting prime minister raises all sorts of national security questions.
Blair will probably take a payout – she and Tony need the money, they're practically on benefit these days – but she may push it beyond an early settlement. There is no love lost, for all the Blairs' wooing of Murdoch, for the way in which News dumped Labour and put her personally through hell (some of it deserved, it should be said).
Blair, a barrister herself, will know how to squeeze News most effectively, and she may push it well beyond settlement. No news is good news, the adage goes, and a lot of people seem to believe that. Which may be bad news for News.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on February 23. Republished with permission.