Whenever company came calling at our London home, my mum would squeal in anguish, “Quick! Hide the News of the World!”
She didn’t want anyone to know that respectable people actually bought and read the Fleet Street tabloid, famous for its eye-popping pictures of bare-breasted babes on Page 3 and wild headlines like “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With Hookers.”
“We only buy it for the news” was the common refrain among its faithful readers, but those of us who grew up with “that rag,” which published its final issue on Sunday after 163 years amid a hacking scandal, are mourning its passing as we would a relative’s because we loved to hate it — and hated to love it. Most British households — even the posh ones — had a copy of the distinctive weekly, its planet-friendly name embossed in jaunty red letters, hidden somewhere on their coffee tables and kitchen counters, and even in their loos.
Its charm lay in its unpretentiousness. The News of the World didn’t model itself as a high-falutin’ publication. It was proud to be “that rag” — an emblem which crowned it king of media, peaking in the 1950s when it became the world’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. An eye-opener from the time of its first edition on Oct. 1, 1843 to its last on July 10, 2011, the News of the World was a reality show in newsprint, sucker-punching the reader with big, blaring, boisterous words as it reported on news with the finesse of a beat-up boxer battling a few rounds in a pink frilly tutu and combat boots.
It became the best by sticking to a simple formula: engross the working stiff with merciless, over-the-top stories, and by going to the ends of the earth, with its journalists hiding in bushes and greasing palms, to expose the shenanigans — criminal or otherwise — of power brokers, celebrities and even ordinary folk who found themselves in the spotlight. The popular approach paved the way for a deluge of like-minded tabloids around the world, which labored unsuccessfully for the most part to imitate its testosterone. No one had — and now probably will never have — the bollocks and gumption of the News of the World, which latched onto our dark side like a leech on speed.
If a good, gritty read was all it took to succeed, the News of the World would have imploded long ago. Its conquest lay on Page 3 — the most important page of a newspaper after the cover because of its instinctive ability to summon the reader’s eye. And gosh did it ever! The “Page 3 girl” — as the notorious crop of comely lovelies came to be uniformly known around the world — was our national pride and joy just for being her gorgeous, ample self. Blonde, brunette, raven-haired or flame-tressed, she made the blood of titillation course through our veins and made sexuality wholesome in some strange way while pumping sales through the roof. Still, mums and dads were loathe to let their kids near her, warning ominously, “Gawd blimey! Don’t you ’ave a butchers (look) at the Page 3 girl!”
She and her throne of newsprint have now disappeared in a poof of scandal, but the seismological eruptions on the media Richter scale are just beginning. The hypocritical minions — the same ones now decrying the defunct newspaper’s infamy — have never been above getting their jollies off with a sensational read, no matter how the information was obtained. Rest assured, history will remember the News of the World as a trail-blazing publication which lived our exponentially nvasive technological culture to its own fault and detriment.
Aptly, “that rag” wouldn’t have had it any other way.