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Exit of Murdoch would not be a cause for cheer

AS the smoke lifts from the battlefield after the most tumultuous week in the modern history of the British press, it is possible to discern a number of spent figures, living and dead.

There lie the mutilated corpses of Rebekah Brooks and of Murdoch lieutenant Les Hinton, a far more substantial player. Over there is Rupert himself, badly, possibly fatally, wounded -- and that staggering, mud-caked man by his side is his son James, who will never lead his father's bedraggled army.

A few onlookers may find this scene affecting; most are exultant. But what of the future of newspapers? Of individual titles? Pleased as I am to see proud Rebekah humbled, I believe the press as a whole is weaker than it was a week ago.

If, as seems quite likely, the tribunal under Lord Justice Leveson recommends statutory regulation of newspapers, that will inhibit high-minded titles as well as the tabloids. Incidentally, those elevated papers that have been making a nice living from the off-cuts of the 'News of the World' will find the board is bare.

Look at individual titles. As an unregenerate lover of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch will never willingly sell 'The Times', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Sun', but he may soon be kicked upstairs by hard-hearted moneymen in New York, for whom these papers are an embarrassment or irrelevance. What then?

God knows, I have criticised 'The Times' over the years for dumbing down, but it is still a fine paper, and honest enough to write fearlessly about the Murdoch empire over the past week. Since he acquired it 30 years ago, Mr Murdoch has stoically borne losses running into hundreds of millions of pounds. Whoever picks it up next may be less accommodating than he has been and, believe it or not, less respectable. Ed Miliband, who apparently wants to expel the Murdoch papers from Britain, should take note.

In the short term, 'The Guardian', 'The Daily Telegraph' and the London 'Independent' may garner a few disgruntled 'Times' readers dismayed by the re-demonisation of Rupert Murdoch. After all, such was the prospectus on which 'The Independent' was launched 25 years ago.

But the potential benefits are probably slight. When the fuss has died down, all three titles will still face contracting sales and, in the case of 'The Guardian' and 'The Independent', very significant losses.

Then there is the 'Daily Mirror', accused by some of indulging in phone hacking. Having lost so many sales in recent years, the paper is in no state to withstand the kind of onslaught experienced by the 'News of the World'.

Reuters reported last Thursday that the Mail group was planning to launch a Sunday red-top to fill the gap created by the (quite pointless) closure of the 'News of the World'.

A new paper, possibly called 'Sunday', may appear as soon as next weekend, partly drawing on the resources of 'Mail Online', which runs many more celebrity stories than the 'Mail'.

(Pundits who declare the red-top business model is irretrievably broken are probably wrong. Celebrity culture is strengthening.)

Murdoch plans to launch a Sunday edition of 'The Sun' to replace the 'News of the World', but he may feel that to do so soon would invite charges of bad faith.

Before the recent travails of the Murdoch empire, falling sales and declining budgets meant that the prospects of such a strong and diverse press were much less certain than they once were. It would be hard to argue, following recent developments, that the lookout for newspapers has improved.

The diminution of Murdoch's power is a good thing but his complete exit, and in particular his abandonment of 'The Times', could well be a bad one. (© The Independent, London)

Irish Independent