Five years ago, News International claimed that phone-hacking was confined to one rogue reporter.
Three years ago, the Metropolitan Police took a single day to dismiss a Guardian report that the News of the World had hacked more than 3,000 phones. How different was the tone struck yesterday, when the Crown Prosecution Service announced that eight people would face charges of conspiracy to intercept communications without lawful authority. The name of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl, features prominently in the charges, along with celebrities and politicians; according to the CPS, there are more than 600 victims.
The list of those charged was headed, by accident of the alphabet, by two former News of the World editors – Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Ms Brooks and her husband have already been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Given her position as Rupert Murdoch's one-time right-hand woman in Britain and someone also on jovial text-messaging terms with the Prime Minister, the charges convey a particular message about prominence and connections having no bearing on equality before the law. Whatever the outcome, that is no bad thing.
Something similar could be said of the decision to charge Andy Coulson. But the implications here could be more far-reaching. For Mr Coulson is not just a former News of the World editor, but former communications chief to David Cameron, when he was Leader of the Opposition and after he became Prime Minister. As with Ms Brooks and all the others charged yesterday, it must be stressed that Mr Coulson is innocent until proven otherwise.
His close ties with the Prime Minister, however, make it inevitable that there will be fall-out in the political arena. Mr Cameron has insisted that he asked Mr Coulson about any skeletons he might have in his closet before he appointed him, and was satisfied with his response. Whether the interview was quite so thorough as to absolve Mr Cameron of all charges of questionable judgement, however, is another matter. And even if it was, the impending trial cannot but cast a shadow for as long as the judicial process takes.
However punctiliously the sub judice provisions are observed, the wheels of justice tend not to turn fast, and the awareness that the Prime Minister's former communications chief faces trial on criminal charges will become part of the bigger political context. For many reasons, Mr Cameron has been losing some of his lustre. Lingering questions about Mr Coulson are just what he does not need.
The CPS defended its decision on the merits of the evidence as its lawyers see it – which of course is the only legitimate justification. But there is another reason why it is better, on balance, that the individuals concerned stand trial. The anguish caused, especially by the Milly Dowler case, makes it highly desirable that all the evidence be examined openly and in court. All those charged deserve the opportunity to clear their name or to know that they have been convicted according to due process, rather than in the court of public opinion. And while fast-tracking is hardly an option, there are human and political reasons why these cases are handled with the utmost dispatch.
When all is said and done, there will be those who interpret the charges announced yesterday, whatever ensues, as corroboration for their view about the excesses and general depravity of the British press. But those same people should also consider that, without the revelations about Milly Dowler's phone and the public outcry it caused, the police might have left their investigations on the backburner. And how did those revelations reach the public, but on the pages of the British press?
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