The Roman Empire was one of the largest, strongest and revered the world has ever known. It dominated Europe and the Middle East for centuries and its presence can still be felt today in many areas of life. Its decline was gradual, territory lost over a number years, ineffective emperors, military losses and internal squabbles all contributed, but a number of historians point to the Battle of Adrianople in 378AD as the pivotal moment. It was there that the Goths defeated the Romans for the first time, the Goths would later sack Rome and bring the Roman Empire as we know it to an end. The Romans were powerful, organised and wealthy, but they were also complacent and corrupt. They viewed the Goths with contempt, they were subjects and would do as they were told. History tells us that was a mistake.

Something very interesting is happening in the media in the UK today, to describe it as a Battle of Adrianople equivalent might be pushing this analogy a bit far, but that’s never stopped me before. The News of the World is the best selling newspaper in the UK. A Sunday tabloid it has regularly broken major stories, usually manages to secure the biggest interviews and exclusives and has a formidable reputation for aggressive journalism. It is well connected politically and it is held that it is nigh impossible to be elected Prime Minister in the UK if the paper, and its stable mate the Sun, don’t support you. Add to this it is owned by News International, part of News Corp arguably the most powerful media group in the world, and you get a sense of the strength of this paper.

Like all newspapers it has suffered from falling circulation of late and it has seemed unsteady on how best to use the internet, again it is hardly alone in the newspaper world on this. Despite this it is still a very successful newspaper and an effective advertising platform for many, many brands.

Bubbling away for the last few years has been a story about phone hacking; illegally gaining access to the mobile telephones of celebrities and Royalty. Needless to say the celebrities involved haven’t been too pleased about this and indeed a journalist and a private investigator have been jailed. It also looks like it will cost the paper a significant amount in damages as those involved seek redress.

Late on Monday the 4th July this story took an altogether more sinister twist. It came to light that the newspaper had also hacked into the phone of a missing 13 year old schoolgirl. Not only did the News of the World hack into this missing girls messages, they decided to delete some, apparently this inadvertently gave the police and the girls family hope that she might still be alive. The girl was later found brutally murdered, it was a horrendous crime and curiously it was only last month that the perpetrator was finally convicted. This appalling crime is fresh in the mind of the UK public and the reaction to this news has been staggering. The paper have been universally condemned on social media sites, the public who had been relatively apathetic to this story prior are now up in arms, and social media has provided the battle ground. Indeed a campaign targeted at those companies who advertise in the News of the World appeared this morning, literally tens of thousands of people have registered their disgust and asked advertisers to review their media choice. At the time of writing several companies including Ford and Npower have announced they will no longer advertise in the paper until a police enquiry is concluded, and others will surely follow. That could take months.

Wow.

In less than 24 hours a newspaper that didn’t even have an edition today has lost 2 of the biggest advertisers in the country because the public, or at least a vocal section of it, asked them too. I don’t know if we are watching the fall of Rome, but we’re watching something unprecedented. If more advertisers pull out, and I can’t see how any can stay in frankly, the largest paper in the country is facing catastrophe. If readers respond by no longer buying paper, and there is no guarantee they will, we could indeed be reaching the tipping point between old media and new. Quite what the News of the World can do to appease the anger over this is unclear, letting it settle down naturally might be their only option.

For all of us in the ‘advertising’ industry this is a big deal, the consumers are speaking, loudly, they are telling brands where not to advertise, and brands are listening. Surely there is no longer any doubt as to the potential of social media.

There was 32 years between the Battle of Adrianople and the final Sack of Rome, you just wonder what the Goths might have achieved if they’d had Twitter.
By John McCallum