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Newspaper scandal awakens the sleeping online giant

Not only did a once-mighty newspaper fall last week, but the demise of the News of the World was first reported to millions via Twitter. There's a message here about the power of media, new and old.

There are many who will look back at the last seven days with some dismay, not least the 200 employees of the News of the World, who were summarily dismissed after the newspaper succumbed to that most destructive of forces, popular opinion.

Spare a thought in particular for anyone called Rebekah Brooks.

The first Ms Brooks, a former editor of the paper and now chief executive of its parent company News International, had to break the news to the stunned staff on Thursday afternoon, after it was revealed that its reporters had been hacking into the mobile phones of murder victims, terrorism casualties and deceased British soldiers.

Ms Brooks, a media star in her own right (as well as an avid Tweeter), may have denied all knowledge of the disgraceful shenanigans being employed by journalists under her charge, yet such was the outpouring of public fury when the scandal broke that thousands of furious fellow Tweeters didn't even bother to check to see if they were responding to the correct account.

Thus another Rebekah Brooks, a New Hampshire freelance writer with a passion for US history, found her Twitter inbox deluged with abusive messages for several hours until the confusion was resolved.

The startling collapse of a newspaper that was considered part of the British way of life has demonstrated how quickly events can escalate in this globally connected age.

If you had told the average NOTW reader a week ago that his regular Sunday morning fix of scandal, expose and tawdry gossip would be his penultimate one, you would have been called a madman.

Yet once the latest story broke about its journalists' alleged activities, the paper's death warrant was sealed. Even for a public addicted to salacious tittle-tattle, such moral corrosion was too much.

We may all have rubbed our hands with glee as we settled down to our weekly helpings of corrupt politicians, errant celebrities and crooked sportsmen - and in doing so we may not have minded how such juicy titbits had been obtained. But murdered children and victims of war are quite another matter.

The revelation that innocent people's personal details and mobile phone accounts had been deliberately targeted resulted in a Twitter campaign to force the papers' major advertisers to withdraw their patronage. In doing so, they brought the publication to its knees.

You might think such a campaign would take weeks to have any effect. It took less than 24 hours.

For me the extraordinary aspect was seeing the astonishing power of this new medium. In the month since I joined the "Twitterati" my inbox had held little more than stale bons mots and queries about how to get melted chocolate off a new sofa. But once it coalesced into a campaigning tool, Twitter's colossal power suddenly was apparent.

I am in London rehearsing a new play, and had plenty of time to check into my account as the scandal unfolded. From seemingly nowhere, the volume of Tweets, posted from ordinary people right up to celebrities and even politicians, exploded before my eyes. The aim was simple: to fatally wound the NOTW.

During a break for tea on Thursday afternoon I logged into my account on my laptop, as I was doing almost hourly. This time I received a Tweet from the respected journalist and news anchorman Jon Snow, who had just heard that the paper's owner, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, was closing it almost immediately.

Snow had posted this extraordinary headline a bare 90 seconds before I picked it up, so I was able to relay it to my astonished fellow cast members before they'd even had time to switch on the tea urn.

More extraordinary still, when I checked into the BBC News website a minute later to glean more details, the story still wasn't there. In other words, due to the dazzling ability of Twitter to disseminate information at lightning speed, we thousands of Tweeters were ahead of the national broadcaster.

But here is the moral: with newspapers struggling in this electronic age, the temptation in the written media is to stoop ever lower into the gutter to find something with which to make an effect.

"No one ever went broke by underestimating public taste," it is said. Yet last week's events prove that you can indeed sink too low, even in this desensitised, scandal-obsessed world.

 

Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London

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