In January of 2007 the News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed for hacking into the phone of three Royal aides. Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, who had been on the paper’s payroll to the tune of £104,988 to provide “research and information services” was also jailed. News International always maintained at the time that the two men were acting alone. The then editor of the paper, Andy Coulson, repeatedly denied any knowledge that a reporter at the tabloid newspaper had hacked the phones of well-known people. He later resigned, saying he took responsibility for the scandal. But News International had set a clear defence; phone hacking at the News of the World was the work of a single “rogue reporter”.
Even before this week’s lurid revelations about the phone hacking of Milly Dowler, the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and now it appears even victims of the 7/7 atrocities, News International’s defence was on the verge of collapse. The Guardian had revealed in July 2009 that News International had paid the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, and two others a total of £1m in a secret out-of-court settlement in exchange for dropping a hacking case. The celebrity publicist Max Clifford is also believed to have received £1m last year in a similar settlement.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan was right this morning to call on the Prime Minister to announce a public inquiry into the issue, and to interrogate the relationship between the media, the police and the way the media is regulated. There was a further revelation this morning that News International have released new evidence to police which it is alleged shows Andy Coulson condoned payments from his staff to members of the police. It is a substantial concession from a company which has hitherto not only denied such behaviour, but spent large sums of money covering it up. The more information that has been dragged out of News International and a disgracefully uncooperative Metropolitan police, the more disturbing the picture has become.
The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who waved through News Corporation’s bid for full ownership and control of BSkyB, thereby creating the largest and most powerful media entity Britain has ever seen, also has questions to answer. It is inconceivable that the government should preside over a further vast increase in the media power of the organisation at the very centre of the scandal when there remain so many unanswered questions about the criminal behaviour of its employees.
Vast swathes of the British press are completely out of control. Ed Miliband was brave – and right – to call for Rebekah Brooks to consider “her conscience and her position”. Politicians have long feared the unrivalled power of News International, but it was power without responsibility. Public ambivalence about the plight of many of the politicians and celebrities who had been hacked by the paper has turned to revulsion at its treatment of murdered men, women and children. Just when you thought the News of the World had rolled into the gutter, they discover beneath them another gutter gurgling away.
Mired in a deluge of the most appalling phone-hacking revelations, it is difficult to see how a public inquiry should not be commissioned. The Prime Minister should come under the most intense pressure today to give way and order a full public inquiry into this scandal that has so besmirched our press, politicians and police.