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Tuesday, July 05, 2011 

Finally hacked off.

This must be a seriously strange, discomforting time to work for the News of the World. For so long the paper that alongside its stablemate the Sun has done more than any other to help foment and then target often misdirected public outrage, to have it screamed down your own phone line must come as a shock. It isn't entirely fair of course, as those most responsible for the phone hacking scandal have either resigned, been summarily dispensed with, sent on gardening leave or err, elevated to chief executive of the parent company. It must be difficult though to get hold of a number for Rebekah Brooks herself, although she could possibly give us peons some advice on just how to achieve it.

To say that News International as a whole must now be genuinely terrified of the consequences of the actions of a number of out of control hacks on a Sunday shag sheet is not to put it too dramatically. The Independent advises that the Times went into crisis mode after the Guardian's revelation yesterday afternoon, the paper's executives agonising over what it could and couldn't write about the story and their flame-haired ultimate boss. In the end they opted to give it some of the front page, although Brooks went unmentioned. The Sun, having far more recently divested itself of Brooks' controlling hand, had a token tiny piece on page 2. Not that such an attempt at burying the story was unique amongst the tabloids, which have played down phone hacking since the beginning: the only one which featured it on the front page at all was the Mail, with the early editions going with something else entirely.

It's a reflection of how overwhelming and unanimous the reaction has been to this new low that the only newspaper tomorrow which has no reference whatsoever to it on its front page is, naturally, the Sun. As stomach turning as it is to hear David Cameron describe actions which respectively his former chief spin doctor and close personal friend had overall responsibility for as "shocking", it's nothing on either the apology from Glenn Mulcaire himself or Brooks's latest attempt at buying time. Mulcaire doubtless was under "relentless pressure" while working at the Screws, but then he must have decided remuneration of over six figures for his trouble was more than adequate compensation for the risks he was taking.

Brooks likewise plays the innocence card. It's simply "inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations" as her memo to NI staff reads. It's worth remembering a previous statement, released a couple of years back which Brooks personally signed. The Guardian's reporting on phone hacking had "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public" she wrote (PDF). As it turns out, the Guardian's reporting then wasn't even the half of it. While Brooks and others at the top of News International conceivably didn't know about every single act of phone hacking senior figures at the News of the World commissioned and which are being extracted painstakingly from Mulcaire's notebooks, she knew all about the "dark arts" and the private investigators involved, as the Independent and previously Private Eye have disclosed. In any case it's an odd defence to take that like Coulson she was completely ignorant of what was going on right under her nose. Coulson after all resigned despite not knowing about Clive Goodman and Mulcaire's antics, an unfortunate precedent to have set. By not at the very least removing herself from helming the on-going inquiry at the company, she's decided it's perfectly legitimate to carry on investigating err, herself.

The other side to this is that it's shown exactly just what journalists can get away with before politicians and public alike decide that a line has to be drawn. Invading the privacy of celebrities, z-listers and the Royals is fine, as is targeting the police, politicians and other journalists. It's only when the victims of horrific crimes become involved that it becomes truly too much to bear. The truly shocking thing ought to be that the police had all the information they're currently working through back in 2006, when Mulcaire and Goodman were first arrested and their material seized. For some reason, and the police and the CPS continue to battle over why it might have been, it was mostly left as it was, potential victims uninformed and the easiest to prove case prosecuted so the unpleasantness could be brought to a swift end.

No one in a position of power wanted it to go any further. Coulson swiftly became David Cameron's chief media adviser, the then Rebekah Wade carried on schmoozing with the Blairs and Brown, before quickly cuddling up with Cameron, the Met continued to have a good working relationship with the News of the World and the Sun, and Fleet Street, although stung, could carry on using such "dark arts" to get stories, the Press Complaints Commission convinced of the "one bad apple" defence. Only the persistence of Nick Davies and the Guardian ensured we're now where we are, in a situation which some are claiming is analogous with that of MPs and their expenses. I'm not sure it's as serious as that, although the way in which advertisers have reacted shows how quickly this could turn into a critical situation for the Screws.

Moreover, it exposes the true nature of the corruption at the heart of our democracy. It isn't financial, except in the sense that no politician in their right mind will ever oppose a Murdoch takeover. Whether it's Cameron dining with Brooks over Christmas while Jeremy Hunt tries desperately to find a way not to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission, or Blair journeying to Sydney all those years ago, the relationship between media and politicians has become such it deserves an inquiry of its own. It used to be that newspapers were used by their owners to provide propaganda for their own political prejudices; we're now at the stage where the power of certain media owners is such that their workers can break the law repeatedly and almost get away with it, safe in the knowledge that failing a public outcry their friends in both government and police will do the bare minimum required of them. Let this be the beginning of the end of such cosiness.

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