He might have been expected to e-mail staff at the Sun about his plans for the tabloid after senior members of its staff were arrested by police investigating the bribery of public officials. Or, given the gravity of the rumors surrounding the newspaper’s very future, the personal touch of a visit would have seemed appropriate. Instead the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch did both, arriving in the U.K. from New York by private jet late on Feb. 16, promising to stay several weeks and dispatching an emotional circular to Sun employees even as the limousine taking him to the headquarters of the Sun and the media group News International nosed through London traffic. He remained committed to the title, Murdoch assured staff, so much so that he confirmed the company’s plans to launch a Sunday edition, the Sun on Sunday. The newspaper “is a part of me,” he wrote.
If the recipients of his e-mail had been in better spirits, they might have wondered which part Murdoch meant. The Sun takes a keen interest in matters anatomical. Page 3 is always garnished with a female form in scanties. And even photographs of an unremarkable visit by Barack Obama to a restaurant in San Francisco can be alchemized by Sun writers into double-entendre gold. “BUTTOCK OBAMA” runs the headline over a photograph published in the newspaper’s Feb. 18 issue. The President poses with a Chinese woman whose small stature means the arm she has attempted to drape around his waist actually encircles the Presidential rear. “Won-ton behavior,” tuts the Sun, reporting that Obama nevertheless “got away with his prawn crackers intact.”
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Students of Cockney rhyming slang will need no help to understand the phrase, which is typical of the humor that usually infuses the Sun (a.k.a. Currant Bun), helping to attract about 2.7 million readers Monday through Saturday, some 700,000 more than the second largest British national newspaper, the Daily Mail. But humor is in short supply these days, and Murdoch’s arrival frayed nerves still further.
If News International journalists are jittery when members of the Murdoch clan send them unexpected e-mails or pay sudden visits to the newsroom, that’s no surprise. In July 2011 Rupert’s son James, then chairman of News International and deputy chief operating officer of its U.S.-based parent News Corp., delivered a scoop to the assembled staff of News of the World as sensational as any story ever splashed across the 186-year-old Sunday tabloid’s front page. Its next edition would be its last. No amount of history, no sentiment about the News of the Screws’ place in British cultural life (a penchant for sex scandals inspired its nickname) or concern for the fate of the workforce — no, not even the red top’s impressive ability to generate profits in a tough market — could save the title from extinction. Revelations that journalists and private investigators in the newspaper’s employ may not only have illegally accessed voice mails left for public figures but also those of private individuals cast, often by tragedy, into the spotlight, rendered it toxic. The Murdochs and the rest of News Corp.’s top tier opted to amputate this limb of their business before the poison spread.
At first the surgery appeared successful. But the 169 police officers from London’s Metropolitan Police Service now deployed to pursue three separate investigations into phone hacking (Operation Weeting), e-mail hacking (Operation Tuleta) and bribery (Operation Elveden) are proving diligent in chasing up new leads, many provided by the Management and Standards Committee (MSC), an autonomous body established by News Corp. to conduct an internal investigation into the allegations of criminality and to cooperate with the police and a range of other inquiries including Lord Justice Leveson’s hearings into the British media. A fresh spate of arrests in the past few weeks gave the clearest indications yet that the Sun may not have escaped contamination after all. Officers from operation Elveden have in total pulled in for questioning 10 current or former Sun journalists. The most recent arrests, on Feb. 11, netted five of the paper’s most senior staffers: associate editor Geoff Webster, deputy news editor John Sturgis, picture editor John Edwards, chief reporter John Kay and chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker. All those arrested were duly suspended by News International.
With staff numbers depleted and morale among remaining staffers plummeting, the Sun struggled to rise each day. Speculation was rife that the title might follow the News of the World into eternal night. The Sun is a cash cow for the business, helping to support its loss-making, upmarket stablemates the Times and the Sunday Times, but that was also true of the Screws. Weighed against the risks to Murdoch’s global empire, and especially his substantial U.S. interests, which range from Fox Broadcasting to the Wall Street Journal, the Screws looked expendable.
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The Sun could be said to pose a greater existential threat to those interests than the News of the World ever did. The scandal that cooked the Screws‘ goose was phone hacking. There is as yet no firm evidence that hacking took place at the behest of any agents of News International on U.S. soil. Sun journalists are under investigation for bribing British public officials, a crime that, if proven, would potentially contravene the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and so open News Corp. to prosecutions in its home territory. Given the enthusiasm with which the MSC seems to be funneling documents to the police in the U.K., it didn’t take a huge leap of imagination for Sun employees and outside observers to conclude that Murdoch might again be preparing to chop off a limb of News International. Trevor Kavanagh, a grey eminence among Sun journalists, used his Feb. 13 column in the newspaper to fire a shot across management’s bows, decrying a “witch hunt” against the title:
It is important our parent company News Corp. protects its reputation in the United States and the interests of its shareholders. But some of the greatest legends in Fleet Street have been held, at least on the basis of evidence so far revealed, for simply doing their jobs as journalists, on behalf of the company.
Kavanagh’s piece set out the terms of the Sun‘s new line of defense. Its journalists and friends in the media have launched a vociferous counterattack against the forces they hold responsible for its travails. These are not, as you might think, the colleagues who allegedly broke the law by paying officials for tips, or their bosses at News International who failed even after the 2006 exposure of phone hacking at News of the World to investigate and stamp out illegal practices within the group. According to its defenders, the malign forces threatening the Sun are journalists from other media organizations, especially the left-leaning broadsheet, the Guardian, which broke the original story and has tenaciously continued to report it, the MPs and investigators seeking to uncover the truth of what went on, and News International’s own internal investigators on the MSC.
The actions of the MSC in supplying police with evidence identifying journalists’ sources have helped to win unlikely allies for the Sun. “If journalists cannot promise anonymity to sources and keep that solemn promise, there would be a lot less news and what there was would be less reliable,” wrote human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson in Murdoch’s own Times of London. Sun supporters claim whistle-blowers, for example nurses exposing inadequate health regimes in hospitals, risk being criminalized in the probe. A source “with knowledge of the probe” painted a different picture for the news agency Reuters:
This is an investigation into serious suspected criminality over a sustained period. It involves regular cash payments totalling tens of thousands of pounds a year for several years to public officials, some of whom were effectively on retainers to provide information. In totality it involves a six-figure sum.
If that source proves accurate, then Murdoch’s determination to keep the Sun shining may not endure. For the moment, the media magnate is working to quell the civil war within his own organization, pledging in his e-mail to continue cooperating with investigators but also lifting suspensions on all staff that have been arrested. “Everyone is innocent unless proven otherwise,” he wrote.
And he is demonstrating his faith in the Sun — or at least in its eventual salability should he decide to offload it — by pushing ahead with plans for the Sun on Sunday. On Feb. 19, News International announced that the first edition of the new tabloid would be published the following Sunday. “The Sun‘s future can now be reshaped as a unique seven-day proposition in both print and digital,” the newspaper’s editor Dominic Mohan told the Sun journalist tasked with covering the breaking news.
Turning the Sun into a seven-day operation should allow News International to recoup some of the revenue lost by garrotting News of the World without the overhead of running an entirely separate newspaper. Sun readers, quoted on the newspaper’s website, expressed their delight. “I hope [the Sun] will keep fighting for free speech and the truth,” said one. Their joy was not universally shared. This is “like replacing Dr Jekyll with [U.K. serial killer and general practitioner] Harold Shipman,” tweeted @DemocracyFail, a.k.a. Jacquie Reed, a long-time campaigner for protecting media pluralism against the expansionary impulses of giants such as News Corp.
A key test will be whether advertisers wish to be associated with the Sun on Sunday and every other day. An advertiser boycott hastened the News of the World’s demise. Murdoch will be watching developments closely. Whatever the outcome, whether the Sun continues to rise under his watch or no, he’s determined to keep his prawn crackers intact.
Mayer is TIME Europe Editor. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.