News of the World has pandered to its readers’ hunger for fast, titillating news, sensation – and sex – for 168 years.
As the Sunday tabloid paper’s 200 staff come to terms with the shock announcement that it will publish its last issue this weekend, those with the biggest smiles on their faces will probably be News of the World’s most notable scalps.
From its very first edition on 1 October 1843, when, priced at threepence, it was the cheapest paper on newsstands, ‘News of the Screws’ specialised in scandal.
There was, for example, the trial and execution of Dr Crippen for murdering his wife. And, in the 1960s the mixture of sex and politics proved a potent draw for readers, with the incredible revelations about the 1963 British political scandal known as the Profumo Affair. News of the World
revealed how John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, slept with Christine Keeler, the reputed mistress of an alleged Russian spy.
At its peak, in the 1950s, editions of News of the World would regularly sell more than eight million copies.
The decision to close the paper is staggering given that it is still the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in the English-speaking world, with 7.4 million readers each week.
The title claims more than 1.2 million more readers than all three other red-top Sundays – the Sunday Mirror, the People and the Daily Star Sunday – combined, and 50 pr cent more than the Mail on Sunday. According to its owners, 15 per cent of British adults read the paper.
It’s the scandal, the irresistible, essential reading week upon week that kept readers coming back for more,.
"Each Sunday morning," noted an article in Time magazine in May 1941, "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.
"Downstairs, rapt scullery maids devour its spicy morsels; so, upstairs, does many a lady of the house. 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."
The headlines continued through the 1990s when News of the World claimed former Tory cabinet minister David Mellor wore his Chelsea shirt during sex with actress Antonia de Sancha, and rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio later boasted to a reporter he took and dealt hard drugs.
A decade later, comedian Angus Deayton was fired from Have I got News For You after it emerged he was having an affair with a prostitue, and David Beckham’s affair with Rebecca Loos made the front page in 2004.
The paper’s investigative reporters were among the best in the world and, in decades past were famed for ‘making their excuses and leaving’ before getting uncomfortably close to their targets.
Investigative reporter Mazher Mahmood and his ‘fake sheikh’ disguise claimed many victims, recently covertly filming the Duchess of York attempting to sell sell access to her husband Prince Andres for £500,000.
A specialty of the newspaper was exposing ‘dirty vicars’ but newspaper historian Chris Horrie said a loophole in libel law prevented churchmen from suing.
Despite that legal protection, News of the World was never far from the courts and it was caught up in a string of high profile battles.
During the trial of the Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in 1966, it emerged during cross-examination that the key prosecution witness, David Smith, had been paid £1,000 and treated to a holiday in France by the paper in return for his story. The judge asked the attorney
general to investigate what "seemed to be a gross interference in the course of justice". The paper escaped contempt charges only narrowly.
News of the World wasn’t always so lucky, though. It had to make a recent payout of £60,000 in damages to Formula One motor racing boss Max Mosely over a ‘Nazi-style orgy’ story, which he claimed breached his privacy.
In the paper put greater focus on women in1980, launching Sunday magazine and appointing Wendy Henry as its first female editor seven years later. But its core preoccupations – sport, scandal and sex – never varied. Under a succession of combative and hugely influential editors – David
Montgomery, Stuart Higgins, Piers Morgan, Phil Hall, Rebekah Wade, Andy Coulson – the Screws scored scoop after scandalous scoop, including corruption in the Pakistani cricket squad.
Wade, now Brooks, was appointed in 2000, launching a campaign to name and shame paedophiles that was heavily criticised for leading to mobs target people they suspected of being offenders – including, in one case, a paediatrician. The then chief constable of Gloucestershire, Tony Butler, labelled it "grossly irresponsible" journalism.
Coulson succeeded her after three years, but resigned in 2007 when Clive Goodman, the paper's royal correspondent, was jailed for phone hacking. Coulson claimed no knowledge of the illegal practice, saying it was limited to one "rogue reporter", but he bore overall responsibility. Doubtlesshe, and Murdoch, thought that would be the end of the matter.