Still on the line: Phone-hacking case is far from finished

With Murdoch due to visit London, his inner circle remain under intense scrutiny. Ian Burrell and Cahal Milmo report
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Andy Coulson may have hoped that by resigning he was taking the heat out of the phone-hacking story.

That might be the case for his last boss, David Cameron, but for his previous employer, Rupert Murdoch's News International, the scandal shows no sign of abating.

For the Wapping-based media empire, the departure from Downing Street of one of the publishing group's most slick and loyal former editors could be the most seismic moment yet in a saga that has bubbled away for more than four years, in spite of all attempts at suppression, and which now threatens lasting damage.

Officially, nothing has changed in News International's position. But a succession of pending legal cases brought by high-profile figures in sport, entertainment and politics will ensure that the company and the behaviour of its tabloid journalists remain under scrutiny.

Lawyers acting for public figures whose names have appeared on lists of mobile phone and voicemail numbers are already queuing at the High Court to submit orders requiring Scotland Yard to release documentation seized from the home of the private detective Glenn Mulcaire. Several celebrities hesitant about launching claims have been "emboldened" by Coulson's departure and the unravelling of the News of the World's defence that phone hacking was restricted to a single "rogue reporter".

The coverage of Coulson's departure, and the headlines that will accompany the slew of civil actions that will make their way through the courts in the months to come, are unhelpful to Rupert Murdoch – who is due to visit London next week – at a time when his attempts to convince the Government that his plans to acquire BSkyB in its entirety are not a threat to media plurality in the UK.

"Wagons are being circled at Wapping," said one source. "I would suggest they are now prepared to let certain figures at the News of the World take the blame for what went on to ensure that others further up the food chain are protected."

Mr Coulson's decision to quit will be deeply distressing to the chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, one of his closest friends. Ms Brooks, who is part of the Prime Minister's Cotswolds-based social circle, is said to have personally lobbied Mr Cameron not to cut him adrift from Number 10. Coulson was a source of great comfort to Ms Brooks during the break-up of her marriage to the actor Ross Kemp, and came to her support when she was arrested for allegedly assaulting her husband in 2005, before being released without charge.

Early in their careers at News International, Mr Coulson and Ms Brooks were friends and colleagues at The Sun. When Mr Coulson was appointed editor of the News of the World in 2003 he succeeded Ms Brooks in the job, having become her deputy on the paper three years earlier.

The House of Commons committee that sought to investigate the extent of phone-hacking at the News of the World considered calling Ms Brooks – who edited the paper for three years – as a witness to their inquiry. A member of the committee, Tom Watson, later told fellow MPs that "the chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, was pursued on three separate occasions before we gave up". Adam Price, a former Plaid Cymru MP and a member of the committee, later alleged that Ms Brooks was not summoned because of fears that News International newspapers would "go for us", investigating the private lives of committee members.

Mr Coulson did appear before the committee and gave evidence that Clive Goodman, his royal editor at the News of the World, had acted as a rogue operator in using Mulcaire to hack into the voicemails of members of the royal household. Both Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed in January 2007 and Coulson resigned soon after, while denying that he knew of the pair's actions. This explanation of the rogue reporter was given in evidence by Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man Les Hinton, at the time the executive chairman of News International. "There was never any evidence delivered to me suggesting that the conduct of Clive Goodman spread beyond him," Hinton told the parliamentary committee in September 2009.

But since then, increasing evidence has emerged that Goodman's activities may have been part of a wider culture of phone-hacking at the paper. If that is the case, the next questions are when did that culture begin, and how far up the News International executive chain did it go?

Both Ms Brooks and Mr Hinton have reason to be alarmed at the way the phone-hacking story has evolved. The scandal achieved a new level of prominence last September when the New York Times produced a detailed investigation of the affair, quoting a former News of the World employee, Sean Hoare, alleging that phone-hacking was not confined to Goodman and that he had hacked messages himself.

Still News International stuck to its rogue reporter line, until earlier this month, when it dramatically suspended the News of the World's assistant editor (news), Ian Edmondson, after a "serious allegation" emerged in a legal action brought against the paper's publisher by the actress Sienna Miller, who claims her phone was hacked. Edmondson denies wrongdoing.

The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing all the evidence in the case and, following Edmondson's suspension, Scotland Yard asked News International for any new material it uncovered.

Miller's lawyers found references to "Ian" on documents seized by the police from Mulcaire. Other papers marked for "Greg" and "Neville" have led to calls for other News of the World staff to face questioning. John Yates, Scotland Yard's acting deputy commissioner, has admitted that Neville Thurlbeck, the paper's chief reporter, should have been interviewed. Greg Miskiw, a former head of news, left in July 2005 after a long career at the title.

Former colleagues of Edmondson, who joined the News of the World in late 2004 and became assistant editor (news) in October 2005, say he inherited a "hard-hitting" operation established by Miskiw. Miskiw was a senior figure on the News of the World throughout Ms Brooks's time as editor, as was Clive Goodman.

As the chief executive of News International, Ms Brooks has a responsibility for not just the News of the World but the rest of Mr Murdoch's flagship British titles, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.

Ms Brooks will be disturbed that the succession of celebrity legal actions against the group shows no sign of abating. A review by the Crown Prosecution Service of the evidence gathered by the police could lead to uncomfortable questions about the puzzling failing of detectives to interview anybody at the News of the World apart from Goodman.