Steve Richards: Everything is in flux, but how much will really change?

BSkyB is over. Until recently Cameron was not going to lead a government in which Murdoch's will was foiled. Now he cannot lead one in which he triumphs
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The Independent Online

The hacking saga continues to move at breathtaking speed and on several different fronts. In Ed Miliband's office they have paused to wonder whether the moment is coming when people ask what the excitement is all about and move on, as they did soon after the funereal frenzy that greeted the death of Princess Diana. With good cause they decide that moment is still a long way off, a view shared across the parties.

Instead the characters and themes cast an intoxicating spell: Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson, Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Yates of the Yard, Princes and Princesses, Hugh Grant and Gordon Brown, all of them immersed in themes that impact on newspapers, broadcasting, legality, morality, big business and much else. When one character speaks the story erupts once more and the dynamics change.

As I wrote last week, this feels big and significant, a crisis which might lead to profound and positive changes in the relationship between media and politics. But I am also a frenzy-sceptic in the sense that I have lived through many dramas that were never as deep as they seemed. There was Funeralgate, when Tony Blair was accused wrongly of trying, in what would have been an act of insanity, to fix the Queen Mother's funeral so that he became the centre of attention. Then there was Cheriegate, in which Blair's wife bought some flats in Bristol, a minor event that one distinguished commentator compared with Watergate at its height. There were several others. None of them led anywhere and had little significance. At its height, and with that mesmerising "Breaking News" headline popping up on the news channels every 10 seconds, a single raindrop can seem like an overwhelming flood.

So let us step back from the storm. What will certainly change as a result of the current saga and what might? I take you on this guide to the near future with a health warning. The closest equivalent to the hacking saga in scale and emotional charge was the epic clash between No. 10 and the BBC over its claims about how Blair took Britain to war. In that case the dynamics oscillated wildly. At the start of the sequence the BBC was hailed by some for its courageous reporting. After the suicide of David Kelly both sides were thrown into traumatic defensiveness. When Lord Hutton reported, the BBC went into meltdown and yet the response of other newspapers meant Blair and Alastair Campbell felt besieged. None of this could have been forecast.

There are some safe predictions now. The current police investigation will follow every lead and as a result some of those who hacked phones or authorised hacking will be charged. It is by no means clear how many. The amount of firm evidence seems limited and largely dependent on the assiduous note-taking of one hyper-active hacker. But it is certain that the new police investigation will be as thorough as possible, if only because of the scandalous indifference of the original inquiry. Similarly some police officers who have colluded with journalists illegally will be charged. There is no brighter spotlight than the one shining now and no one can get away with more cover-ups.

The next certain consequence is bigger. The BSkyB deal will not go ahead. Until recently Cameron/Osborne were not going to lead a government in which Murdoch's will was foiled. After the last few days they cannot lead a government in which he triumphs. This is almost so literally the case now that Nick Clegg has overtly called for Murdoch to pull out of the bid. Suddenly there is no political support. The bid is being considered belatedly, and in a deranged context, by the Competition Commission, but it is the lack of political support that will kill it.

This reverse dynamic, in which politicians compete to show their disapproving distance from the Murdoch empire, will almost certainly last beyond the frenzy. One Sunday columnist wondered whether in a year's time party leaders would be drinking once more at the annual News International party. They will not.

The relationship between police and newspapers will be more distant too. Police officers are not going to take the risks in the future when they look at what happens to some of those that did. The distance might even take the form of less indiscriminate leaking. One of the many scandals of the "cash for honours" inquiry was the leaking from somewhere within the doomed police investigation, not least to the News of the World. Yates of the Yard was in charge of that inquiry and then showed no interest in the hacking evidence. He has almost as many questions to answer as Rebekah Brooks and will become a bigger figure in this story.

These safe predictions give an outline to the future. There will be a less powerful Murdoch media empire, more formalised relations between police and journalists and less ostentatious friendships between senior politicians and mighty media figures.

But that leaves a huge amount that is still unclear. Murdoch will not get BskyB, but will he retain his other interests in Britain? If he does, he remains a figure of immense power. Before long political leaders will worry again about what his papers think of them. The regulatory framework will change, but suggestions about what form the regulation will take and who will be the regulators are vague. Other newspapers are coming into the frame, but even a police investigation of determined integrity can only follow the evidence and that is narrow, a problem that might afflict other inquiries that are soon to be launched. Those inquiries could be sensational or a damp squib.

Above all, the political fallout is impossible to call. Miliband deserves to get credit for being well ahead of David Cameron. His words at last Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions in which he warned Cameron that he will change his mind on BSkyB were prophetic. Cameron is changing his mind fast. But the mood might shift to one in which voters become worried by politicians interfering with the so-called freedom of the press. Murdoch's empire is an agile fighter and will find ways of hitting out against perceived enemies. The drama is apocalyptic, but where the stakes are highest, revolutionary change or virtually no change at all are both possible.