Phone hacking: So what does the outcome of the trial mean for press regulation?

As Andy Coulson is found guilty of phone hacking charges, Tories will be anxious not to make enemies before the election

Ed Miliband should be deeply regretting his decision to pose with the Sun newspaper last month in what now looks like a public relations masterstroke by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK newspaper stable.

It paved the way for Wednesday’s triumphalist Sun front page in which, with breathtaking confidence, it celebrated the acquittal at the hacking trial of its former editor Rebekah Brooks under the headline “Great Day for Red Tops” alongside a large photo of the russet-haired former Queen of Wapping.

At the time of Miliband’s sorry participation in the Sun’s publicity stunt of shoving 20 million free copies of the tabloid through British letterboxes ahead of the World Cup, the umbrage at his action stemmed from the pain it caused to the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy, whose families and supporters still regard the paper as poisonous.

But there were wider consequences. Miliband may have laughably blethered about how he was only trying to “promote England’s bid to win the World Cup”, but he was also providing another stomach-churning image of a senior politician cravenly cosying up to the popular press – indeed the Murdoch press – which he had previously stood up to.

So when at the end of the hacking trial he, quite rightly, sought to embarrass the Prime Minister for having brought the now convicted criminal Andy Coulson into the heart of government, his position was severely weakened. He no longer stood apart from Rebekah and Andy’s great friend David Cameron or Tony Blair, who, the trial jury heard, had offered free consultancy to Rupert and Rebekah in their darkest hours.

Andy Coulson outside the Old Bailey where he was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones Andy Coulson outside the Old Bailey where he was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones

All of this has significant consequences for the future regulation of the press. Ed Miliband – along with his deputy Harriet Harman – has sat in the box seat in driving Parliament’s attempts to reform newspaper culture and he hosted in his private office a late-night meeting – attended by members of the campaign group Hacked Off – when the Royal Charter on press reform was finalised.

That Royal Charter is being ignored by the papers and last week’s Old Bailey verdicts were taken by most of Fleet Street as confirmation that the entire three-year process to call it to account – from the Leveson inquiry to Scotland Yard’s Operation Weeting – had been a colossal waste of public funds. “£100m phone-hacking trial ends in Brooks walking free”, as The Daily Telegraph reported the story (with no mention of Coulson’s conviction until the fifth paragraph).

It was not just News UK that had an interest in Rebekah Brooks being cleared. Much of the rest of Fleet Street also breathed a sigh of relief. The sight of the most recognisable figure in British newspapers being hauled away to prison would have provided a narrative for film-makers and authors that could have damned the industry’s reputation for a generation. It could have derailed the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), which the newspapers will use to bypass the Royal Charter.

Video: Rebekah Brooks is cleared of phone hacking charges

As it is, the Daily Mail could suggest in an editorial that the not guilty verdicts for Brooks, her husband Charlie and others including her PA Cheryl Carter, had exposed “the baselessness of [Cameron’s] decision to call the Leveson inquiry – which has cast such a chill over press freedom – in his panic-stricken bid to distance himself from the Murdoch papers he had so assiduously courted”.

Miliband, who last year showed considerable bravery in standing up to the Mail as it traduced his late father and who has personal reasons for wanting to curb the more bullying tendencies of the press, should be regretting his own assiduous courting of Murdoch.

Heady with a sense that they’re almost out of the woods, the papers that have fought hardest against reform invoked extreme language in arguing they should be allowed to just get on with the job. “We face unprecedented danger from Islamic terror,” noted The Sun, as it pointed out that the money spent on the hacking trial could have been used by a Foreign Office counter-terror unit that is facing £15m in cuts. The Mail compared the jailing of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt last week to Mr Cameron’s assault on “300 years of press freedom” in the UK.

While The Independent and The Guardian focused on the historic moment of the jailing of a senior Downing Street official, there was a sense in the wider press that Coulson was not so important. His offence may have occurred when he was editing Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, but he had left the industry for PR. He is Cameron’s problem now.

David Cameron apologised 'unreservedly' and was 'profoundly sorry' for having employed former News of the World editor Andy Coulson

Hacked Off – which has waited for this moment since its inception after the phone-hacking of Milly Dowler – is running out of cards to play. I was at its press conference on Thursday when it released film of Milly’s elder sister Gemma attacking Ipso as “fake” and condemning the “incestuous relationship between our top politicians and the press”. Again, these words are less helpful to Miliband after his flirtation with The Sun. On Friday night, Hacked Off organised a Twitter “thunderclap” of simultaneous tweets to demand Leveson compliance. It’s becoming desperate.

Ipso starts work in September with the widely-admired Sir Alan Moses as its chairman. Although The Independent and The Guardian have yet to sign up, the latter noted in its post-verdict editorial that tabloid behaviour had improved in the past three years. “Public life in Britain feels a cleaner place as a result,” it said.

David Wolfe QC was last week made inaugural chairman of the Royal Charter’s recognition panel but is unlikely to have any significant publishers to recognise.

For Hacked Off, which wants to force the press to abide by the Royal Charter, the difficulty is convincing the public of the significance of subtle differences between Ipso and the system outlined by Leveson. New Culture Secretary Sajid Javid is regarded as a dove by Fleet Street, and the Tories will be anxious not to make enemies in the press before the election. Labour is committed to a process that means Ipso has until at least autumn 2015 to establish itself.

Miliband has missed his chance. When he finally sank his teeth into the Prime Minister over the demise of Coulson, the public was soon looking elsewhere, at Luis Suarez doing something similar with an Italian defender.

Twitter: @iburrell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Display Account Manager

£25,000 to £35,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: The Company Our client are th...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director

£80 – 120K : Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director – Ad tech - £80 – 120K...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas