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The real hacking scandal

Today's select committee hearing in perspective.

Earlier today, before the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, four men sat and answered questions.

The men were former News International lawyers Tom Crone and Jon Chapman, the former News of the World editor Colin Myler, and the former News International Director of Human Resources, Daniel Cloke. The first to be questioned were Cloke and Chapman, and then it was Crone and Myler.

As one expected, this resulted in a complex exercise of providing answers and non-answers, of points made and points deliberately missed, and of convenient vagueness and suddenly useful precision. Certain things were remembered very well, and other things just not recalled at all. It seemed at times that the select committee hearing may have well taken place in a room full of mud and fog. And the blame was passed around like a parcel at a children's party.

But thanks to the gallant and persistent (and well-prepared) questioning of select committee members of all parties, a slightly clearer picture is now emerging of what the News of the World did in respect of the conviction of Clive Goodman in January 2007, and the events which then followed; even if the exact contributions of the four men questioned today remains to be fully established.

The dismissal of Goodman was not seemingly inevitable, even though News International appear to have been aware that he was intending to plead guilty. It seems Andy Coulson, the then editor of News of the World, wanted Goodman to stay on or be re-employed. This, of course, sits oddly with Coulson's later insistence that Goodman was a lone rogue in the newsroom.

It will take a day or two to fully digest what Crone and the others have now added to what was known at News International, and when, about the extent of phone hacking. In all this, what was or was not known by the hapless James Murdoch is perhaps a red herring: it is now clear that a significant number of senior News International executives and lawyers were well aware that Clive Goodman was not acting on a frolic of his own.

What is now coming apart is the cynical strategy adopted by News International in trying to close down the story about the criminality of their reporters; a strategy which presumably informed how News International dealt with Parliament, the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission, the claimants in civil litigation, and so on.

In all of this, two points remain stark. First, there is still no good reason to suppose that phone hacking was confined to the News of the World. Indeed, the "Operation Motorman" exercise of the Information Commissioner's Office from 2003 to 2006 shows that the trade in unlawfully obtained information (other than phone hacking) was rife throughout Fleet Street. It was just that the clumsy hacking of the Royal Household telephones by Mulcaire and Goodman could not be ignored.

Second, there was a general failure of the British polity over the last ten years to address the casual criminal behaviour of tabloid journalists. One by one those entities charged with upholding the public interest failed to deal fully with the wrongful conduct at the time: the PCC and then Parliament seem to have been misled; and the police inexplicably narrowed its initial investigation before deciding to take no further action. With the exception of the Guardian, it was left to the civil claimant lawyers, and the New York Times, to expose the scale of the phone hacking scandal. Without these actors, there would not have been a select committee hearing today.

The hacking of mobile telephones, as with the other methods of illegally obtaining personal information, was, without doubt, common in the tabloid sector in the years leading up to 2006 (and perhaps beyond). It has now taken five years and the intervention of the Guardian, the New York Times, and the civil courts, for us to even have got this far in finding out whatever really happened regarding phone hacking. Without the initial intervention of the Royal Household none of this may have occurred. In the twenty-first century it surely should not be left to the Crown to play such a significant role.

This five year delay, and the inability of those who were supposed to protect us to actually do so in the years before, is the reason why the Leveson Inquiry should be as wider-ranging as possible.

Something went badly wrong and, worse still, we may never have even found out. That is the real scandal.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman