News of the World: Why Hollywood Is Celebrating Its Demise

The rise and fall of the newspaper reflects the changing legal treatment of tabloids.
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On Sunday, in the wake of a burgeoning "phone hacking" scandal, Rupert Murdoch's News of the World will publish its final edition. Few tears will be shed in Hollywood as a host of celebrities have had legal run-ins with the famous UK newspaper.

The paper has been around since 1843 and survived on the type of salacious scandal-mongering that ultimately brought down the paper. A 1943 article in Time magazine summed up the appeal of News of the World this way:

"Each Sunday morning to more than a third of Britain's 11m homes, goes a juicy dish of the week's doings in divorce, scandal, abduction, assault, murder and sport. Farmers, labourers and millworkers cherish its sinful revelations; so also do royalty, cabinet ministers, tycoons. Without News of the World, Sunday morning in Britain would lack something as familiar as church bells."

In 1969, News of the World was acquired by Murdoch, and by the 1980s, the newspaper became fixated on the secret lives of celebrities.

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The cut-throat hunt for celebrity scoops began to work their way into courts.

In 1985, for example, the paper was sued by the National Enquirer for running pictures of the wedding of actress Joan Collins and Peter Holm. The Enquirer claimed it had purchased exclusive photos from this private ceremony and that News of the World committed copyright infringement, unfair competition, and intentional interference with a business relationship. News Corp. unsuccessfully retorted it had a valid contract with the Enquirer to run the photos.

Reporting on the private lives of celebrities can be legally dangerous, especially for a tabloid living in the United Kingdom. Britain’s defamation laws are notoriously plaintiff-friendly and "libel tourists" have been known to take advantage of this fact.

News of the World was often front-and-center on a lot of these cases. In 1989, Arnold Schwarzenegger battled the tabloid at the U.K. High Court for reporting he held Nazi and anti-Semitic views.The lawsuit was settled.

More recently, News of the World has battled libel claims from other celebrities, including from David Beckham and his wife Victoria for a story claiming their marriage was on the rocks, from a Member of Scottish Parliament over a story alleging adultery and drug use, and from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for a story detailing a forthcoming split.

In each of these cases, News of the World settled by making financial payments. In the Pitt/Jolie case, the newspaper admitted the story was false. These legal slaps on the wrist were the cost of doing business.

Over the years, the newspaper has also answered allegations it has invaded the privacy of public figures.

Before the phone hacking abuses came to light, the most notorious case involved Formula One racing head Max Mosley suing the tabloid after it printed pictures and published video of him in a five-hour sadomasochistic sex session with prostitutes in what the paper deemed a "sick Nazi orgy." Mosley sued for gross invasion of his privacy and in 2008, won £60,000 in damages.

Ultimately, though, it was revelations that the newspaper had hired private investigators to intercept voice messages that ended the paper's nearly 170 years in business.

At first, the scandal looked to be restricted to a few celebrities, including Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, and Jude Law, who pursued their own legal actions. In mid-May, Miller reached a settlement agreement worth nearly $200,000 and the controversy seemed to be in the rear view mirror.

Now, upon the latest word that the phone hacking was more prevalent than anyone could have believed, including the revelation that a murdered girl's voicemail was hacked, journalists are being arrested, Murdoch's news empire is under assault from politicians and regulators, and of course, News of the World is folding.

We spoke with one top Hollywood litigator who was already celebrating its demise. But of course, the NOTW is only one of the UK's tabloids, so others will likely fill the space.


Twitter: @eriqgardner


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