Twitter takes on The News of The World

Rupert Murdoch, News International

Rupert Murdoch, News International

This article first appeared here in The Commentator

The micro-blogging site once again weighs in to the biggest story of the moment and proves its power in combating old media

Just shy of a week ago, I was commenting on the then-latest Twitter scandal – Independent columnist and interviewer Johann Hari versus accusations of plagiarism – but a few short days later, the power of Twitter is being proven once again as the full implications of newspaper News of the World’s (NOTW) latest phone-hacking allegations come to light.

In a severely worrying twist to the NOTW’s now-infamous phone-hacking history which saw former editor Andy Coulson resign as Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director earlier this year, the paper has now been accused of having hacked into murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s mobile phone in 2002, and deleting messages to free up space for potential new ones, giving police and her grieving family false hope that she was still alive.

The paper and its then-editor Rebekah Brooks, also stand accused of hacking into the phones of murdered Soham girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and the families of victims of the London Tube bombings which occurred six years ago today. The blogosphere is understandably outraged, saddened and shocked, while campaigns persuading advertisers and consumers to boycott the paper are already picking up pace.

And while the #interviewsbyHari hashtag was picked up by many a tweeter in a mocking manner as the journalist struggled to defend the indefensible, the News of the World story has a far more sinister edge and provides a compelling, if not a little haunting argument for the importance of Twitter and peer-edited journalism.

Rather than a sideshow in which play irrelevant Twitter-obsessives with one eye on the blogs and the other on the latest fleeting flash in the pan, those gathering to condemn the News of the World are now rightly taking centre stage. Because – and this is the thing – few of the nation’s most-read newspapers are covering the story as their main headline, either online or off.

Not The Sun, circulation almost three million, while obviously the News of the World has been careful – they’re both owned by the infamous Rupert Murdoch’s News International. They both pay grudging lip service to Rebekah Brooks’ statement that she feels ‘sickened’ by the hacking allegations, while non-Murdoch paper The Daily Express carries a small feature on advertisers pulling out of the NOTW. The other tabloid favourite, The Mirror and the left-leaning Guardian feature the story more prominently, their circulation figures are far lower than their biggest competitors (one million and three-hundred thousand respectively).

Far more than exposing the depths to which The News of the World’s private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was prepared to plumb, the story has also revealed in harsh definition the uncomfortable, but often forgotten grip that Rupert Murdoch’s media machine has on the British press and some allege, on the British Government as well.

And while David Cameron has weighed in on the matter, discussing the issue in the House of Commons, and Brooks herself has responded with all the right noises amidst Ed Miliband’s calls for her resignation, the word on ‘the twittersphere’ is examining the evidence in ways that the nation’s biggest papers cannot.

Calls for the halt of the impending BSkyB takeover, which was widely held in contempt by many previously, are now growing louder. A campaign calling for advertisers to boycott the paper, spearheaded by well-known figures such as Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins, and signposted by hashtags like #saynotonotw, #MurdochMonopoly and #phonehacking, is starting to bear fruit.

Already big names such as Renault UK, Virgin, Coca-Cola, Lloyds TSB, Halifax, Cadbury, The Co-Operative Food and the Body Shop among many others have said that they will not advertise, while influential parenting powerhouse Mumsnet has reportedly pulled also out of its own advertising venture with Sky after users disapproved of any involvement with Murdoch-related media.

While these decisions are unlikely to have been made purely on the basis of Twitter, the site’s influence is unmistakable. Figures such as The Guardian Deputy Editor Katharine Viner are keeping their followers informed with live reminders of the latest events surrounding the case; updates abound as more and more catch on to the micro-blogosphere’s gathering indictments.

As the story gathers strength, allegations increase in severity and Cameron announces an inquiry, Twitter’s role in showcasing the public’s outrage will take a backseat. But once again, the power of the site is not only in revealing intense public feeling, but also in driving it.

Twitter, the platform of which means that anyone who feels strongly enough can add their voice, and which is unbound by News International’s media hold, is once again proving its critical role in today’s changing media landscape. It is opening the curtain to shine a light on what once, and would still if Murdoch had his way, have remained largely shrouded in darkness.

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