Consider this an obituary for a newspaper. The suddenly late News of the World succumbed at 168 this month to a fatal case of shame aggravated by financial calculation. Its chronic hubris became acute under its latest owner, who has not been free of that malady himself.
The end came as a shock. Who knew The News of the World was even capable of shame? And now it's died of it. Its insatiable appetite for scandal finally did it in. For once its zeal got in the way of its owner's ambitions instead of furthering them. And it had to be put it out of its misery. Its last great scandal, as it turned out, was its own.
The saddest thing about NoW's abrupt passing is that it won't be around to cover it, complete with the required pictures of the dramatis personae scurrying out of their lairs with faces hidden from prying paparazzi.
Nothing could save The News of the World as evidence began to pile up of outrages low even by its famously low standards. Like hacking into the phone of an abducted schoolgirl to eavesdrop on increasingly desperate messages from family and friends. And listening in on the phone calls of relatives of British soldiers killed in action in Iraq. Spying on royalty may be almost an English tradition by now, but Tommies -- and their families -- used to be off-limits.
Oh, yes, a history of bribing police officers was also mentioned in dispatches. As high-level resignation follows high-level resignation, Scotland Yard begins to look more like the Keystone Kops.
At least two parliamentary investigations have begun, and neither will be pretty. This can of worms has just been opened, and there's no telling what other scandals will slither out.
The good news is that there are still lines even a British tabloid may not cross with impunity. The outcry against NoW's sleazy ways has been deafening. And widespread. It covers the spectrum of British opinion from toff to prole. Maybe there'll always be an England after all. And an English sense of decency.
Ordinarily the fall of another storied newspaper is an occasion for mourning, but the mercy killing of this sick, sick operation raises hopes. Despite all one has heard about the deterioration of British manners, old John Bull is still capable of recognizing behavior up with which he will not put.
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.