Crown caught

There was nothing inevitable about the phone-hacking scandal turning into a crisis. Had it not been for an unexpected sequence of events, the casual disregard News International (NI) had towards the privacy of those who featured in some of its stories may never have emerged, nor would the complacency of the Met police in investigating any wrongdoing.

How it did emerge exposes much about the nature of power in our polity: the formal institutions of parliament, the police and the free press did little to ensure that the initial scandal came out in 2006-2007 or was revived in its current form in September 2010. Instead, with the exception of Nick Davies of the Guardian, the prime movers of the story have been the Crown, the civil courts, and the New York Times, none of which is supposed to have any practical political influence in the UK at all.

In respect of the Crown, it was only when the voicemails of the royal household were hacked that any prosecutions followed. The civil courts then entertained a range of privacy claims that forced NI to seek to settle. In particular, the civil actions against NI guaranteed that a steady flow of information came to light.

But even with these ongoing claims, the concerns about phone-hacking could have been ignored, had it not been for the New York Times revelations. Since 2007, NI and the Metropolitan Police had tried to close the story down. Misleading statements were given to parliament, and the Press Complaints Commission was brushed aside. Assurances were given but the "lone rogue reporter" explanation could not survive the explosive New York Times article of September 2010.

It is fashionable to deride the Crown, "litigation culture" and the US media. But those parts of the constitution that should have worked - parliament, the police, and (with the exception of the Guardian) the free press - simply turned out not to be efficient.

And, contrary to Bagehot's maxim, they turned out not to be dignified either.

David Allen Green is the legal correspondent for the NS

By David Allen Green

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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