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Fleet Street goes out with le whimper

An era's end in London passes with a shrug, and an insult or two.

St Paul's Cathedral is seen at dusk beyond Fleet Street in central London on April 28, 2008. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

LONDON — A canyon of smoke-filled newsrooms thundering to the beat of mighty printing presses once stood in London’s Fleet Street, dispatching an army of journalists to file copy from all corners of the world — but mostly from the nearest pub.

In its prime, Fleet Street dominated the international media, with titles like the London Times, The Express and the Daily Telegraph shifting millions of copies to an eager public in thrall to their breathless accounts of conflict and intrigue at home and abroad.

Those days finally ended this month, as Agence France-Presse, the last major news organization operating in the legendary media thoroughfare, packed up its office and relocated to less romantic, if somewhat cheaper, premises elsewhere in the city.

The departure of AFP from what English satirical magazine Private Eye witheringly refers to as “The Street of Shame,” seems to have gone unnoticed by the British print media, somewhat surprisingly given its unrelenting penchant for self-analysis.

Perhaps this oversight could be because its newspapers are busy unpicking what could prove to be one of the most shameful episodes of their long and occasionally honorable histories: Namely an alleged phone bugging scandal involving the biggest-selling title.

Reporters from the The News of the World, a showbiz gossip-led tabloid which shifts about 3 million of its once-weekly print run, are accused of hacking into the cell phones of up to 3,000 celebrities and politicians and eavesdropping on their daily lives.

While the paper’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman was jailed in 2007 for similar offenses — prompting the resignation of editor Andy Coulson — it is now alleged many more staff were complicit and at least one prominent figure was paid off to prevent further legal action.

Though all involved have denied the claims, they have doubtless caused embarrassment to Coulson’s current employer David Cameron who, as leader of the opposition Conservative Party, hopes to see himself elected as prime minister next year.

For Britons inured to the tawdry checkbook journalism tactics of their “gutter press,” this latest episode has done little halt what they see as a decline in the standards of a media still collectively referred to as “Fleet Street” despite its en masse desertion of the road.

“Nobody wants to pay for this stuff anymore,” said fashion student Stephanie Regan, 21, clutching a copy of the London Lite, a daily round up of rehashed news wire copy and showbiz tittle-tattle handed out free at subway stations in the capital.