From the first, there were indications that the phone-hacking accusations engulfing News International would ultimately spread beyond the Murdoch empire. Now, with civil claims lodged by four celebrities against the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and The People at the High Court this week, it has finally done so.
It is, of course, possible that the accusations will prove to be erroneous and that, in fighting them, Mirror Group Newspapers will demonstrate beyond doubt the innocence its executives have protested all along. But with parent company Trinity Mirror's shares already down by a staggering 90 per cent over the past five years as the contraction of the print newspaper market has taken its toll, the group is not in a strong position to ride out the storm it faces, regardless of the outcome.
If the claims do succeed, the implications are more ominous still. So far, phone hacking has cost News Corp more than £140m in legal costs and compensation, not to mention the upheaval of restructuring its UK media assets and closing one of its most successful British newspapers. Trinity Mirror will struggle to weather even a fraction of such trauma, as yesterday's further slump in the stock price only underlines. Thus far, the company has avoided any internal investigation, on the rather unconvincing grounds that "there's no evidence that our journalists have been involved in phone hacking", as Sly Bailey, the chief executive at the time, told the Leveson Inquiry in January. Faced with the very real possibility of a forced disclosure of swathes of documents, and the threat that if the first four blaze a trail any number of disgruntled others might follow, Mirror Group can no longer afford such complacency.
So much for Mirror Group; what of the wider implications? Other media organisations who might yet confront allegations of their own will certainly be watching developments with trepidation. And then there is the wider question of press regulation.
With Lord Justice Leveson expected to publish his recommendations before the end of the year, the claims from Sven-Goran Eriksson et al might appear to come at a peculiarly sensitive time. In fact, there were hints throughout the Leveson Inquiry hearings that Mirror Group might yet be drawn into the scandal, for all the repeated denials from senior executives. Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, even went so far as to suggest to the former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan that his newspaper had been "near the top of the list" of Fleet Street's worst-behaved. Testimony from a former Mirror share tipster that hacking was rife under Mr Morgan's editorship was also hard to ignore, even with James Hipwell's conviction for stock market manipulation taken into account.
Against such a background, and with Lord Justice Leveson already expected to advocate a statutory underpinning to future regulation – to ensure that all proprietors are compelled to conform – the latest formal allegations against Mirror Group are unlikely to change much. What they will do, however, is up the pressure on the Prime Minister to put the Leveson plan into immediate action. They also increase the likelihood that the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry, to consider specific wrong-doing rather than general practice, will go ahead after all.
Even if the claims of phone hacking against Mirror Group turn out to be unsubstantiated, they are nonetheless another chapter in the saga that started with questions as to the provenance of a single royal story seven years ago. They also make it clearer than ever that Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations on press regulation are far from the end of the matter.