Phone-hacking drama is testament to hacks who held true to ethics

Shakespeare couldn't have made it up
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The Independent Online

Even Shakespeare might have paused. Even Shakespeare, looking at the long, long list of characters he'd set down on the page, and thinking about how he could raise some up, and knock them down, and about the circles that linked them, which meant there could be more twists to the tale, and then more, and then more, might have thought that this was enough. He might have thought that it was one thing to have a mad old man wandering around on a heath, whose children were vying for his kingdom, or to have a woman who put power way, way above the "milk of human kindness", but that it was a bit too much to mix up the two, and then throw in a dozen more.

He might well have thought that it was one thing to portray one friendship that was, as one of his characters put it, "too hot, too hot!", a friendship, say, between a prime minister and the chief executive of a media empire, and that that could be very gripping to watch, and to watch unravel. But that if you put in friendships that were "too hot!" between all the different characters, then everyone would get lost.

He might have thought that it was a good idea to stick to one genre. To comedy, say, where you saw very powerful people slipping on banana skins, or maybe being pelted with rotten eggs. He might have decided that what would be even better than banana skins, or rotten eggs, would be for the powerful people to be forced to appear before a committee of the people who were meant to be more powerful, who might have been drinking champagne with them, but who seemed to have suddenly decided that this was wrong.

He would probably have decided that although you could talk about a murdered schoolgirl, and dead soldiers, and dead commuters, and about things that had been done that would make people very, very angry, you couldn't actually have a real dead body. He would probably have decided that a real dead body would be confusing for everyone, and a distraction from the main characters.

And maybe he would have been right. But although Shakespeare was very, very good at making drama that kept people gripped for several hours, he never wrote one that kept people gripped for two weeks. He did write about people who lied, and people who schemed, but he didn't write about emails, and laptops in dustbins. This drama, this drama which has shocked, and gripped us, wasn't written by a playwright. It was written, or at least it was uncovered, by investigative journalists.

We don't know exactly how long it took Shakespeare to write a play. We do know that Nick Davies started writing about phone hacking at the News of the World two years ago. We know that he managed to find evidence that police officers couldn't. We know that some of that evidence was passed to a select committee, but that when the select committee asked people from the News of the World, or people who used to work there, and later worked in government, about phone hacking, and were told that it was something that was done by just one reporter, they decided to believe the people whose jobs might have been on the line, and not the one whose job wasn't.

But the truth, as Shakespeare could have told us, is often stranger than fiction. And it is journalism – that trade now hated even more than politics – that uncovered this truth. And that's now, more than ever, under threat.

It was, of course, already under threat, because when something was invented that was as important as the printing press, which meant that anyone anywhere could click a mouse and get a world, and tap away at a keyboard and post their thoughts about the world, everyone decided that everyone could write, and that everything everyone wrote should be free. Some people were still happy to pay for the writing in books, or newspapers, but most of the newspapers they wanted to pay for were the ones that told the kinds of stories that used the methods they now said made them so shocked.

If you still want newspapers that can uncover stories, and scandals, like this, or like the one about people trying to buy peerages, or the one about people paying other people to fix match results – stories that don't mean you just ask someone a question and assume that what they're saying is true – then what you need is some very skilled, very determined people, and some very rich men.

Shakespeare could have told us that hubris isn't just something you see in very powerful people who are ordered to attend parliamentary committees. He could have told us that it's something you also see in people who were very happy to go along with a system, and who decide to give speeches saying that they were always against it. He could maybe even have told us that it's quite easy to give speeches, saying that what you need is a press that doesn't have any political bias, and that's regulated by the state, and that never does anything that anyone would think was wrong, without saying who was actually going to pay for that press, and who was going to keep it going.

Shakespeare could have told us that a dead body in a drama can mean many things. He could have said that the dead body of Sean Hoare, who was the first person to speak out about the phone hacking at the News of the World, and who hoped to make some amends for the wrongs he thought he'd done, was a reminder that nice people get sucked into bad systems, and that the answer to bad systems isn't always to close the places they're found in down.

Shakespeare could also have told us that a dead body, even in a story that's very, very gripping, is usually a sign that what you thought was a comedy isn't.

"This country," said the 80-year-old billionaire to the people who were trying to humiliate him, "does benefit from having a competitive press." In this, whatever else he may have said or done, he's right. What some of us might want to add, is that you'll miss us when we've gone.