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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 

Leveson and the crumbling of empires.

And so it ends, not with a whimper but a bang. In a perfect coincidence, the Crown Prosecution Service announced its decision to charge some of those arrested over alleged phone hacking on the same day as the Leveson inquiry's last public hearings. For those like me who were sceptical of the inquiry to begin with, wondering whether it would be turned into a circus by the celebrity witnesses, something that looked more than plausible when Hugh Grant was the one of the first called to give evidence, it's more than safe to say that we were wrong to be.

If nothing else, it finally provided a platform for those who have held power without responsibility for so long to be held to account. We didn't just have the Murdochs giving evidence under oath (and what evidence), but also Paul Dacre, Richard Desmond, Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and many others from the Street of Shame asked to account for the rubbish they serve up day after day after day in their papers. On occasion it wasn't so much the answers they gave as their mere presence, so many being shy and retiring types when not ordering about their underlings. Dawn Neesom, editor of the Daily Star does exist, it turns out, while Paul "double cunting" Dacre seethed his way through his appearances, unused to having to suffer such indignities.

Not that these were anything to those the first group of witnesses to the inquiry had went through. Again, for those like me who felt that the McCanns had brought some (not all by any means, I must stress) of the subsequent bad coverage on themselves through the way they went about enlisting the media in the search for their missing daughter, we were delivered the equivalent of a hefty slap around the chops. It's easy to forget that the likes of the Express and Star really did carry stories claiming that the McCanns had been swingers and took part in orgies, that they had sold Madeleine to help pay off mortgage debts, or that the News of the World published Kate's personal diary despite the McCann's press adviser telling them not to do so. That it was a bastardised English to Portuguese to English translation didn't put them off one bit; indeed, Colin Myler at one stage rang Gerry after the couple had given the an interview to Hello! magazine, righteously wounded that they had gone somewhere other than the Screws after the paper had helped raise £1.5m for the Madeleine fund. Similar horror stories came from Sienna Miller, Anne Diamond, Charlotte Church, the Dowlers, and Mary-Ellen Field, who lost two jobs thanks to the NotW's obsession with Elle Macpherson.

When it was the turn of the politicians to shed some light on their relationship with the press, it was a case of who knew least: was it the elected leaders of the nation, or our self-appointed representatives? David Cameron, according to the BBC, said a variation on he couldn't remember or recall 49 times during his 25,890 words of evidence, while his old pal Andy Coulson did the same on 28 occasions during just 10,531 words of testimony. Cameron at one point had to call on glam Sam to remember just how often he met with dear Rebekah and Charlie; once every six weeks or so according to his wife's social diary. While Jeremy Hunt might not have been brought down directly through the inquiry, despite it being apparent to everyone other than the compromised leader himself that he had broken the ministerial code, he surely can't survive the coming reshuffle. And despite the continuing outpourings from Rhodri Davies, QC for News International, everyone now knows that there was a shadow policy being conducted through Hunt's SpAd Adam Smith in favour of the BSkyB bid. There may not have been prima facie evidence of a pact between News International and the Conservatives, but we did learn of how Cameron knew three weeks in advance that the Sun was to plump for the Tories over Labour the day after Gordon Brown's 2009 conference speech.

We must then return once again to poor Dave's choice of mates. It was bad enough when Rebekah and Andy were charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice and perjury respectively; for them to now also face trial on the specific charge of conspiring to intercept the voicemail of Milly Dowler is just about as bad as it gets. Let's give Dave the widest benefit of the doubt: that he genuinely did want to give Coulson a second chance, and he took George Osborne's advice to employ him as his chief spin doctor purely because of his ahem, array of skills, rather than his closeness to the key players at News International. Why then, when the evidence was mounting up and the warnings from numerous individuals were coming in thick and fast did he insist on taking Coulson into Downing Street with him? Consider the nightmare scenario, that both Brooks and Coulson are found guilty of all they've been accused of; is there any possible way that Cameron could remain prime minister when his director of communications was not only involved in the hacking of the voicemail of a missing schoolgirl, but also lied under oath about having no knowledge of phone hacking whatsoever?

As Alan Rusbridger told Leveson today, the fundamental reason why phone hacking happened is because News International was allowed to become too powerful. At the height of his hubris Kelvin MacKenzie honestly believed that he had the power to help a party to election victory, if only through the constant slurring and smearing of the opposition. Murdoch himself was far more subtle: he joined the winning team when their victory was inevitable, while still maintaining his influence through the menace of what he could unleash should his chosen side drift too far from his own views. MacKenzie's values were passed down through the subsequent editors of the Sun even if they altered their views as the public's own changed, while the News of the World tried to one up the daily paper, and often succeeded. What MacKenzie started, Rebekah Wade renewed and Andy Coulson then perfected. If it hadn't been for Nick Davies and the support he received from the Graun, not to forget the court cases brought which exposed further evidence, then Rupert Murdoch would almost certainly still be a director of NI and cock of the walk. He might not have been telling the truth when he told the culture committee that his appearance before them was the most humble day of his life, but he has been humbled. It's a much needed reminder that no matter how big, powerful and influential, all empires eventually begin to crumble.

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