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A racket at News International?

The second module of the Leveson inquiry has an explosive start.

When last November, Tom Watson MP put to Rupert and James Murdoch that they were running a "Mafia" organisiation, it seemed that the dogged and fearless critic of News International had gone a step too far. And that was a pity, as up to that point Watson had asked a fine sequence of well-structured questions which the Murdochs were finding extremely difficult to evade.

The allegations that came out this morning at the Leveson inquiry suggest that Watson's comment was not as misconceived as it may have first appeared.

Let's break down a criminal enterprise into elements. Are there allegations of criminal activity? Yes, both in terms of hacking and corrupt payments. Was that alleged criminality for commercial purposes? Yes. Were there alleged wrongful payments to the police? Yes. Were there contacts with the police which provided alleged early warnings of investigations? Yes. Was the knowledge of any of this possessed at senior levels in the organization? It would appear so. Was there a deliberate silence to the outside world about what was known? Yes, again it would appear so. Were public officials misled? That seems the case with at least the PCC. And were police investigations closed down in circumstances for which there is still no good explanation? That would indeed appear to be the case.

However, all that we have so far are allegations and what can be inferred from the materials released. All those involved are entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence in respect of any criminal liability. Nonetheless, the scope of the allegations are now as serious as they can be, and there does seem to be evidence of a scale and system of improper payments which is worrying at best.

Still, Watson did perhaps go too far with his reference to the Mafia. A Mafia organisation is presumably one which exists for criminality as an end in itself. News International was always in the lawful business of publishing newspapers; it was just that a culture of criminality seems to have been allowed to develop as part of that otherwise entirely legal enterprise, and that such a culture seemed to have been knowingly insulated from any effective outside scrutiny. But it is a rather unfortunate defence to resort to say something is not being quite as bad as a Mafia. What appears to have gone wrong at News International seems bad enough on its own terms. For, if these allegations are borne out, then there was what can be fairly called a racket.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman