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News of the World: The paper that died of shame

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For nearly 170 years News of the World known for exposure of wrongdoing
  • Now paper is infamous for misconduct of its own journalists in phonehacking scandal
  • Publisher says this Sunday's edition will be the last

London (CNN) -- For much of the 19th and 20th centuries as News of the World's circulation soared ever higher, its slogan "all human life is there" gave a pretty good idea of the kind of content that made it the best-selling English-language newspaper in the world.

Now, as staff on Rupert Murdoch's tabloid prepare to publish Sunday's final edition of the paper following Thursday's announcement of its closure in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, they may be rueing how life has a habit of bringing even the mightiest beasts crashing to earth.

Britain's scandal-hit News of the World to shut down

From its formation in 1843 the paper, which initially cost just three pence, made millions of pounds for a succession of owners by offering up a regular diet of sex and celebrity news that helped it capture a significant chunk of the mass market.

And until the paper became infamous for the behavior of its own journalists, News of the World was known for its investigations, exposure of wrongdoing and campaigning. Just months ago it won a journalism industry award for its exclusive story about alleged match fixing by Pakistani international cricketers.

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One veteran journalist, the Guardian's assistant editor Michael White, said the paper had a "Jekyll and Hyde" nature. The paper was responsible for "good stuff like the Pakistan cricket corruption story and some awful stuff that we now know about," he told CNN.

He added that journalists at the paper were "spitting blood that (the paper's owner) Rupert Murdoch had not closed (its chief executive and former editor) Rebekah Brooks rather than their beloved newspaper."

A snapshot of the Rupert Murdoch empire

"These are difficult times for our industry. It's horrible to think of News of the World closing, even though it sometimes drives me mad."

This populist approach had been an essential ingredient from the paper's first edition. In contrast to the staid newspapers such as the Times, the News of the World published salacious stories about vice prosecutions and police investigations into grisly murders.

In 1891 the title was sold by the Bell family -- which established it -- to Lascelles Carr, the owner of the Western Mail, whose nephew Emsley was editor for 50 successful years.

In its early years, the circulation was just 12,000 but by 1912 it had reached two million, doubling to four million by the start of World War II. By 1950 8.5 million people -- out of a population of 50 million at the time -- were buying the paper every week.

The exclusives continued throughout the "swinging 1960s," starting with a famous photo showing a naked Christine Keeler -- the woman at the center of the Profumo Affair, which helped to discredit the Conservative government.

A timeline of the scandal

Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1969, becoming the Australian's first Fleet Street title, and while the paper remained hugely profitable during his ownership, circulation gradually declined from its peak down to its current level of about 2.6 million copies a week.

It's horrible to think of News of the World closing, even though it sometimes drives me mad.
--Guardian assistant editor Michael White
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During Murdoch's stewardship the paper has had a series of triumphs, from exclusives about the private lives of politicians and celebrities such as footballer David Beckham as well as numerous stings involving the "fake sheikh," reporter Mazher Mahmood.

There were controversies too. In 2000 it campaigned against pedophiles following the murder of a young girl, Sarah Payne. The paper's practice of "naming and shaming" alleged sexual offenders led to lynch mobs attacking the homes of many, some of whom were wrongly identified.

The campaign -- supported by Brooks -- outraged some senior police officers, but there was much public support for its backing of "Sarah's law" that demanded public access to the sex offenders' register.

Sometimes the paper went too far in its reporting. Motor-racing boss Max Mosley was filmed taking part in role-playing games with prostitutes in 2008, but this was later ruled a breach of his privacy by a judge.

Hacking scandal exposed secrets

Following the announcement of the closure Mosley said on Thursday he was suspicious of Murdoch's motives. "This is more about getting caught and trying to limit the damage" than any admission of guilt, Mosley told CNN.

The phone hacking scandal surfaced in 2006 when royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested over a story about Prince William. The pair were jailed the following year for conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Editor Andy Coulson also resigned after assuming "ultimate responsibility."

The allegations continued to dog the paper with a series of claims about phone hacking by News of the World journalists -- and alleged collusion by police -- eventually leading to Scotland Yard setting up a new investigation.

These revelations snowballed, and following claims that News of the World had hacked the phone of a teenage murder victim, public outrage reached a crescendo. And as the scandal became arguably greater than anything ever exposed by the paper, Murdoch will hope that the contagion can be limited.

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