It's not too early to have a book on the British phone-hacking scandals that have dealt such a body-blow to the Murdoch news empire. Public interest in the matter is probably as strong now as it is ever likely to be, the amount of data that has got into the public domain could already do with a bit of summarising and editing for the public's own benefit, and one of the authors is a Member of Parliament who has done as much as anyone else to take the lid off a very interesting stew. We could do with hearing it all told his way while it is still fresh in his mind.
Britain has no right to privacy underwritten by the law, but not quite anything goes. In particular hacking into private phone messages or emails is illegal, and it slowly became apparent that Murdoch's News of the World was doing exactly that. The exposure started in a strange way, with a trivial piece of news that Prince William had strained a tendon in his knee while kicking a ball around: big deal indeed, until someone thought to ask where the story had come from. Gradually other, more newsworthy, cases of hacking came to light. The British public would still not have had a fit of moral outrage if these stories had all been about which footballer was having it off with whom. When the victims of the intrusion were the families of murdered children, then some basic sense of decency kicked in.
That is to say, it kicked in among the general public, not in the News International office. To start off with, they denied all. Then it was allegedly a single rogue reporter. Then it was a few rogue reporters. Gradually, the walls of the fortress fell down, weakened by the implausibility of the defenders' stories and the persistence of the attacks. There was a culture of abuse and illegality, and I wonder how many people without a personal interest in the matter could ever have believed it was anything other than that. An excellent summary of the situation is quoted from the eminent journalist Andrew Neil, once Murdoch's very own satrap as editor of the Sunday Times:
`You create a climate in which people think it's all right to do certain things. And I would argue that Rupert Murdoch with his take-no-prisoners attitude to journalism - the end will justify the means, do whatever it takes - created the kind of newsroom climate in which hacking and other things were done with impunity on a large scale.'
Another instructive comment came from one of the victims of the scandal, the comedy actor Steve Coogan:
`Strangely, I don't think it was a malicious personal vendetta against me. My feeling is that it was a dispassionate sociopathic act by those who operate in an amoral universe where they are never accountable.'
Malicious personal vendettas were reserved for those perceived as `anti', such as the softly-spoken Tom Watson MP, and the report from behind the ramparts that it had become personal with the News of the World's hyperbolic editor Rebekah Wade is very easy to believe. He stuck to his own guns, gaining at least one valuable and equally determined ally as he went along, and he obviously enjoyed asking James Murdoch at a Parliamentary Committee hearing whether he (JM) was the only mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a mafia. It can't have been easy for him at other times, e.g. when he found that not just the police but organised crime were involved with the newshounds, and one informant was murdered in what looked like a contract job. Watson feared for his life, and in his place I would have feared for mine. It would have been dumb not to.
As for the police, the book's final summary says quite accurately that their reputation for honesty and competence will take a while to recover. I thought back 30 or 40 years to the time when one eminent judge ruled that the British public would surely not have wished for certain matters shedding a dubious light on the administration of the law to be subjected to legal appeal, on the grounds that that would shake public confidence in the institutions concerned. So there has really been progress - that sort of condescending insolence would arouse public outrage these days. What makes this saga so important, I'd say, is not just in nailing some miscreants, but in shaking au fond a whole culture embracing several institutions we would prefer to think of as pillars of society.
The book is very up to date as I type these remarks on 29 May 2012. The Moving Finger has not stopped writing yet, but we are a long way down the text. The book ends on a note of understandable caution--Rupert Murdoch is still in charge of his empire. Well, I don't want regime change, I want culture change here in British journalism, which actually owes a lot to him. The old boy is over 80 and I wish him many years yet, but it's time he and some others learned a lesson. Now other parties have to do whatever it takes to clean up the collective act.