Phone-hacking scandal: Keep up at the back!

It's quite confusing, isn't it? Let Matthew Bell guide you through the twists and turns of this Shakespearean drama

Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be a short interval. The curtains are down, the stage cleared, and it's time to stretch your legs and get an ice-cream. Act III of the News International phone-hacking scandal is over and, frankly, we could all do with a break.

The saga is a long way from over. But what a riveting first half it's been, sending shock waves through Westminster, Fleet Street and the Metropolitan Police. Heads have been rolling like guillotine day at the Bastille. Each news bulletin brings a story that, a month ago, would have been inconceivable. But for those of us with lives to be lived, keeping up with every last twist and turn has been a bit, well, trying.

The overture to this power pantomime has been rumbling on since 2007, when the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire went to prison for hacking Prince William's phone. But it wasn't until three weeks ago, on 4 July, that the drama really kicked off.

Act I, Scene I opened with the explosive revelation that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had also had her voicemail intercepted by a clutch of low-life hacks. The action moved fast: the Soham girls, 7/7 survivors, and relatives of serving soldiers – all were revealed to be possible victims of illegal activity. Rebekah Brooks was disgusted; Andy Coulson was arrested; Clive Goodman was rearrested. Four days later, James Murdoch announced he was closing the News of the World, hoping to limit the saga to just one act, preferably with a happy ending – the sale of BSkyB to News Corp.

But no. Act II proved to be just as eventful. Rupert Murdoch flew in to manage the crisis. Britain's most senior police officers were hauled in for questions by MPs who delighted in this, perhaps getting an eye for an eye after the expenses scandal.

Things got stranger with the beatification of St Hugh of Grant. You couldn't get him off the airwaves. At one point, he said that asking Rebekah Brooks to clear up News International was like asking Hitler to sort out the Nazi party. Steady! Even Gordon Brown was roused from his brooding. But he got it wrong, and conveniently forgot that, like everyone else, he sucked up to the Murdochs when it suited him.

By the end of the second week, nine people in all had been arrested, and Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton and Tom Crone had all sensationally quit News International. But still, nobody had admitted to actually knowing of any illegal activity having happened under their watch. Of course not!

By last Saturday, the scandal was officially recognised as Shakespearean; at least it was by users of Twitter, who began posting memes about "The Taming of the Screws" and "Hackbeth". "Is this a blagger I see before me?", asked one; "Now is the winter of our discontent, Made spurious summer by this son of Oz," declaimed another, trumped only by: "When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in front of Tom Watson at the DCMS Committee on Tuesday?"

Act III opened on Sunday with the surprise arrest of Ms Brooks, who was held in a London police station for nine hours. Her lawyer complained about the damage to her reputation. Still, she wasn't in overnight, like the time she clobbered her then husband, Ross Kemp (allegedly!).

The tale took a darker twist on Monday, when the former NOTW reporter Sean Hoare was found dead. He had contradicted the official line that hacking was the work of one rogue reporter. Mr Hoare, who had problems with drink and drugs, said Andy Coulson "was well aware that the practice exists". It's still not known how he died.

Then came the Mystery of the Computer in the Car Park, when police were handed a laptop and a phone, found in a bin near Ms Brooks's home. Her husband Charlie asked for them back, but it was no good.

On Tuesday came the moment all rival newspaper owners had been waiting for – Rupert's day in court. Well, not quite – he was up against a bunch of corduroyed backbenchers. But they performed well, especially Tom Watson, who has more or less lived for this moment for years.

Predictably, everyone was suffering from the amnesia that descends on anyone who is asked what they knew about phone-hacking. Rupert put in a good performance as Lear, a tired old man with a kingdom in chaos. He suddenly remembered what he had been coached to say, that this was "the most humble day of my life". He banged the table, sensing perhaps that James's Harvard MBA management-speak about "quantum of damages" had sent everyone to sleep.

There was no snoozing in the row behind, as Wendi Deng showed, by karate-chopping the man with the foam pie heading for her husband. This incident proved to be the most revealing moment of the day, as cameras caught James's cringing reaction as the attack happened.

On Wednesday, it was the Prime Minister's turn to take centre stage. Someone told him it might be a good idea to come back from Africa – that continent's problems were nothing compared to the great London soap opera. He finally made an apology of sorts for having appointed Andy Coulson as his director of communications. With 20/20 hindsight, he said, he wouldn't have appointed Mr Coulson. Not because he was a criminal, mind you, but because it had been such a bother being dragged into all this. And besides, he seemed to say, Andy is still innocent.

How does he know? For it then emerged that Mr Coulson was never given top-level security clearance before being appointed by No 10, an admission that could prove dangerous for the PM. News International then stopped paying Glenn Mulcaire's legal fees, which, if he starts talking, could prove dangerous for them. And things got bleak for James Murdoch when two former employees spoke out against his evidence. Colin Myler, the last editor of the NOTW, and Tom Crone, former head of legal affairs, issued a terse two-paragraph statement saying they had shown him what has been christened the "For Neville" email in 2007. That really could prove dangerous for him.

As the curtain came down on Act III, the Prime Minister was saying that James Murdoch "clearly" needs to explain himself. Things are going to get worse before they get better. Act IV will be long and tortuous, as everyone from the FBI to Strathclyde Police launches an inquiry, or in the Met's case, an inquiry into their inquiry. Act V is several years away, as today, James and Rupert Murdoch are still on the board of News Corp, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are still free to roam the streets, and the Prime Minister is still in office.

Expect plenty more to exit the stage yet ... perhaps pursued by a bare Page Three girl.

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