From trickle to torrent
The past ten days have been like moving from a hushed and deserted street into the raucous uproar of a nightclub in full swing. One moment, silence: the next, pandemonium. A story that has rumbled along for two years with, let's face it, many people only too happy to turn a blind eye, erupted with a kind of demented fury. For long stretches of time a small coterie of journalists, MPs and lawyers had kept the affair ticking over with a steady trickle of incremental stories, statements and writs. Suddenly it was a gushing torrent.
There was a moment on Monday evening when I was discussing the day's events with a colleague, who had, by 6pm, already forgotten both about the lunchtime revelations concerning the hacking of Prince Charles and the claim that royal protection officers had been selling information about their charges. "Oh that," he said distantly. "Yeah, seems so long ago."
That was the news that wasn't
But it doesn't seem so very long ago when no one was very interested in any stories that reflected badly on Andy Coulson - particularly as he edged ever closer to the door of No 10.
I knew (if I didn't know already) we were on our own in November 2009 when an employment tribunal awarded a former News of the World journalist almost £800,000 in damages - you read that right: the thick end of a million pounds - after finding that he had suffered from a culture of bullying under Coulson. Call me old-fashioned, but that looks very much like what we call "a news story". Not that anyone agreed at the time.
Search any database in vain for a paper, other than the Guardian, that covered it on the news pages the following day. Full marks to the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, which did at least mention it in a column the following week. The Independent and the Scotsman also caught up in features terms. But there seemed to be some omertà principle at that time which meant that not a single other national newspaper thought it was newsworthy.
It's been much-speculated that the reluctance of some papers to write about the dark arts was that they might not be 100 per cent squeaky-clean themselves. That's sort of understandable, if not very illuminating for the public. But suppressing an £800k payout over the man who was likely, within months, to be No 10 press secretary still seems to me a puzzling judgement for every news editor to have made on the night.
The people who didn't want to know included David Cameron, who ignored attempts (not just ours) to warn him, and the police, including officers at the most senior level who robustly stuck up for the Met's behaviour at all stages and implied we were all a bit obsessed. It applied to Peta Buscombe, the doomed chair of the Press Complaints Commission, who so strenuously didn't want to believe the story that she landed herself in deep legal trouble of her own.
One distinguished press commentator (oh, OK, Donald Trelford) wrote in the Independent in February that the story was "obsessive, hysterical andopportunistic" and "a case of 'dog eats dog' gone barking mad".
In each instance, I suspect, people imagined they knew the motive behind the story (lefty paper out to get Murdoch/slam the PCC/ knock the police etc) rather than simply looking at the facts that our reporter Nick Davies had unearthed. If the police and the PCC had done their job properly back in July 2009 the NoW would still be alive today.
That was evidently not the view of whoever it was on the Sun's politics team who tweeted last Saturday night, trying to lay the blame for killing off a newspaper on . . . well, not Rupert Murdoch. The tweet read: "NotW - RIP. A loss to 1st class journalism. Ed Miliband, Guardian & BBC; how proud you must be of your work". Some PR genius at Wapping evidently thought this was not very smart, hence a rapid reverse ferret on behalf of @sun_politics: "Please ignore last tweet from this account re NotW - not authorised, and not the paper or its political team's opinion. Has been deleted."
They can be heroes
There have been heroes, too. Nick Davies, obviously. There was David Puttnam, who years ago saw the dangers to media plurality in this country. Include colleagues at the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Channel 4, Financial Times, the Independent, the BBC and the Observer who did keep plugging away. There was Peter Oborne, whose columns and TV coverage were important in convincing the open-minded that perhaps this wasn't purely a pinko conspiracy.
Andrew Neil, back in July 2009, immediately spotted that this was "one of the most significant media stories of modern times". And there was a small clutch of lawyers - mainly from obscure little law firms rather than big shiny ones - and MPs. Tom Watson, Paul Farrelly and Chris Bryant have been rather magnificent in their tenacity. Chris Huhne was one of the few MPs willing to dare speak out over the story back in 2009 (much good it did him). And all the claimant victims - some of whom were on the rough end of some bullying treatment from News International - showed guts.
Ping! We have your co-ordinates
Within hours of the Milly Dowler story breaking, News International was briefing that there might be worse to come. We all strained to imagine what that could be - but, sure enough, we learned about the targeting of the relatives of the victims of the London bombings and of military families. But one of the most shocking revelations was tucked into a New York Times story on Tuesday. The paper established that the NoW was tracking, as well as hacking, phones, using specialist police technology at £300 a pop.
Think about it - the paper was able to locate any politician, footballer, celebrity or grieving relative at any time of day or night to within yards. It's called total surveillance. Not even the Stasi could do that.
Alan Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian