Paul Greenberg

There was a better time when it was simply assumed that some things would never change, like roomy London cabs, the red pillar-boxes of the Royal Mail, and, yes, The News of the World. That publication may not have been to everybody's taste, like kippers or orange marmalade, but it was a staple of a stable culture. For 168 years. Now it, too, has vanished. Sunday mornings will never be the same.

In one of his memorable essays (weren't they all?) George Orwell dilated on the "Decline of the English Murder," blaming its deterioration on the crass Americanization of once proper British homicide.

Mere brutishness, Orwell complained, had replaced the kind of finely laid plot that would require a Lord Peter Wimsey to unravel. The refinement and planning of "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club" (Dorothy Sayers, 1928) has given way to vulgar crime sprees. It's a great loss.

It was a loss Orwell greatly mourned in his elegiac little essay in 1946, which naturally enough, began with a reference to The News of the World:

"It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

"Naturally, about a murder."

Not just any kind of murder, but a proper English murder -- one that could be savored by a popular culture still bound, at least publicly, by ties of middle-class propriety. A culture that could still be fascinated by tales of poor blokes led astray by some decidedly un-English passion for the illicit, like extra-marital sex or keeping your seat while an old lady is left to stand on the Number 15 to Westminster.

"With all this in mind." Orwell wrote, "one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader's point of view, the 'perfect' murder. The murderer should be a little man of the professional class -- a dentist or a solicitor, say -- living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. ... Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison."

Of course. But there's not a drop of poison, except that of the poison-pen variety, in the scandals that killed The News of the World.

Now, in place of a mystery worthy of a Dorothy Sayers or P.D. James, all we get is a lot of electronic snooping that would embarrass an IT middle manager.

This sad deterioration in the style of scandal -- from typically British to indeterminate -- can also be blamed on Americanization, which by now has morphed into globalization. Not even the nationality of Rupert Murdoch, the press baron at the center of all this hubbub, is clear. Australian, British, American, all or none of the above? Welcome to a world, and press, without borders. Or distinctive cultures. Art Nouveau and Art Deco, or any art at all, has lost out once again to the International Style.

It's not just The News of the World that is gone but the world that made it a good read and a window into the British psyche. The decline of the English scandal, like that of the English murder, is a tribute to an earlier world. When a society with its own idiosyncratic features fades away, however quaint or eccentric or even hypocritical its standards were, its scandals won't have much character, either.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.