Ian Burrell: What was written off as a spat now has the feel of being more significant

Such practices appear to have ended abruptly with Goodman's jailing in 2007
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The Independent Online

At least one celebrity thought it was funny. "Am thinking of inviting Andy Coulson to the Comedy Awards," tweeted Jonathan Ross ahead of presenting Saturday night's funfest. "Have left a message on Sienna Miller's phone for him."

But as the resignation of David Cameron's director of communications elevated the mobile phone-hacking scandal to a new level of importance, few others saw it as a source of amusement.

As high-profile figures in film, sport and politics pursue legal action against Mr Coulson's former paper, the News of the World, some are genuinely angry at what they see as an invasion of their personal privacy. Others conceal hopes of a big pay-out.

There's little laughter in Fleet Street. In other circumstances, the demise of a tough Wapping stalwart like Mr Coulson would have been greeted with unrestrained glee by rival media groups. But many responded to the news with barely disguised discomfort, preferring to cover Alan Johnson's marital problems and developments in the Joanna Yeates murder investigation.

The reason is that News International's dogged insistence, over four years, that its phone-hackery was the work of a rogue reporter (jailed royal editor Clive Goodman) had held a line for other newspaper groups too. But now, first with the suspension of the senior News of the World executive Ian Edmondson and then with the departure of Mr Coulson, it feels as if the levee has been breached.

Mr Edmondson has instructed lawyers and denies wrongdoing. Mr Coulson says his resignation does not alter his position – that he was unaware of any phone hacking when editing the News of the World.

But the mood has changed. What was being written off as an ideologically motivated spat now has the feel of something more significant. And media groups that had previously stood to one side of the issue, claiming it to be of little interest, might now be starting to sweat. Mark Lewis, a lawyer representing alleged victims of hacking, has claimed to be preparing cases on behalf of clients against other newspapers, outside News International titles.

It hardly comes as a surprise. As long ago as 2006 the Information Commissioner produced a report in which he named 30 newspapers and magazines (The Independent not among them) which had paid for personal confidential information. At the top of the list was the Daily Mail, where 58 reporters were implicated, followed by the Daily Mirror with 45 names. At the time of Goodman's conviction, Piers Morgan claimed he was "a convenient fall-guy for investigative practices that everyone knows were going on at almost every paper in Fleet Street for years".

Morgan, who edited both the News of the World and the Daily Mirror, is one of scores of tabloid journalists who have worked for rival employers, swapping news-gathering techniques, sharing contacts and blurring the reporting cultures.

"The phone-hacking fuelling so much current fury is old news," wrote the former Guardian editor Peter Preston yesterday in The Observer (another title named in the Information Commissioner's report). He is right that such practices appear to have ended abruptly with Goodman's jailing in 2007. The hacking culture comes from a previous era and was regarded as a basic snooping technique. More extreme reporters acted out James Bond fantasies by carrying attaché cases stuffed with electrical gadgetry from London spy shops and an acquaintance with the dark arts was a badge of honour. Its equivalent today would be an understanding of how to scour social networking sites for personal information.

Newspapers might have thought they had got away with their hacking. But the money at stake is a great incentive to keep the issue alive. News International has reportedly paid a combined £1.7m to two claimants in out-of-court settlements. The queue of litigants is growing daily. These are hefty sums, for a company that lost £78.5m pre-tax in 2009 (admittedly after a written-off £45m loan to the group's closed free daily, thelondonpaper).

Although cases will be difficult to prove, other media groups, already faced with adverse trading conditions, could be crushed by a mountain of litigation.