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Good riddance. But we all love a load of old rubbish

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I never felt good about myself after picking up a copy of the News of the World. It made me feel a bit grubby and soiled, as though some of the spiteful, sneering, dirt-dredging tone of the paper had come off on my hands.

Hacking aside, perhaps the most dishonest thing about the News of the World was the editorial sleight-of-hand which allowed it to assume a position of high moral outrage, as a bastion of old-fashioned decency, with a fastidious loathing of the filthy exploits of its victims.

But that was always a palpably absurd sham. So why should anyone act surprised when it emerged that the paper would itself engage in the most scurrilous, shameful activities to get a story?

“Sure, I'll only look at the first couple of pages,” I would tell myself if I ever came across a copy of the News of the World.

I would try to ignore that squirmy sense of seediness. But before I knew it, I'd sat down and read the whole sorry scandal-rag.

You know when you go into an outdoor market and you smell those cheap, fatty, grease-laden hamburgers sizzling on the grill and you know they're bad for you, but you go ahead and have one anyway? Afterwards, you feel gorged yet simultaneously unsatisfied and a little bit revolted with yourself.

Well, that's how I felt after an encounter with the News of the Screws, as Private Eye so accurately re-named it.

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But I was fooling myself. I was putting all the blame for my own sneaking fascination with salacious tittle-tattle — we all have it in there somewhere, whether we admit or not — on to the newspaper itself.

I was compartmentalising — packing up the bits of myself that I don't much like and putting them away in a box marked private and then conveniently pretending it didn't exist.

Why did the News of the World adopt that ostentatious stance as champions of high moral standards in the first place, if not to allow readers off the hook of their own consciences, allowing them to pretend that they too were on the side of right-thinking decency, not just gutter-journalism junkies?

We may not like to acknowledge it, but that prurient or morbid curiosity about the darker side of the human psyche — the transgressively erotic, the macabre — is alive in all of us.

And there's nothing new about it: the rigidly uptight Victorians were avid devourers of scandal; in fact, it's thought that the sensationalist accounts of the Whitechapel killings by Jack the Ripper led directly to the birth of the modern tabloid press.

We all have something of the voyeur in us. Take the phenomenon of rubber-necking: slowing down your car to goggle at a traffic accident.

Sitting in a lengthy traffic-jam in East Bridge Street in Belfast, caused by a three car collision, I complained bitterly about being held up for so long by people inching past the accident so they could get a good look.

Sure enough though, when it came my turn to drive past, I couldn't resist sneaking a peek myself, wary of what I might see, yet insatiably curious too. It's not an admirable instinct, but it is a very human one.

Rubber-necking can take other forms too. During the Troubles, when IRA car-bombs were regularly going off in towns across Northern Ireland, a remarkable feature of the aftermath would be the roads jammed in all directions.

These weren't people fleeing the town in fear. They were people from outlying parts and other nearby towns flocking in to see the damage the bomb had done; to satisfy their own morbid curiosity. Only in Northern Ireland.

It doesn't have to be sex or death either: sometimes some nasty, but non-serious injuries will do. Recently, one of the most viewed stories on a newspaper site was a series of photographs of crashes during the Tour de France.

Cyclist Johnny Hoogerland was pictured with his buttocks exposed, his cycling shorts in shreds and deep bloody gashes down his legs as he tried to free himself from a barbed wire fence. As a viewer — as a voyeur, truth to tell — you're left with a strange mixture of pity, horror and fascination.

So while the News of the World may have gone — brutally axed by the ruthlessly ambitious Murdoch clan — the ageless human drive to scratch the filthy underbelly of life remains. Our appetite for intrigue, smut and titillation existed long before the News of the World set out its stall and it will continue long after its demise.


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