After two years of foot-dragging, nit-picking, hair-splitting and general obfuscation, News International has finally done the right thing in the civil litigation about phone hacking. It has put its hands up and agreed to compensate all but a few of the remaining victims who were suing it.
This belated milestone in Britain’s worst-ever press scandal seems likely to rob us of the delicious prospect of a civil trial in which the company attempted to defend the undefendable, but much more importantly it delivers some justice to people whose privacy was shockingly violated.
So this is a moment to pay tribute to all of those civil litigants, famous and obscure. We should honour them for their courage in challenging not only the might of Rupert Murdoch’s company, but the whole tabloid press, which was so eager to help keep Murdoch’s dirty linen hidden. And we should also honour them for prising open this huge can of worms when the entire establishment was determined to keep it shut.
There is talk of a new royal yacht for the queen’s diamond jubilee; perhaps before 2012 is out we should also have a handsome monument to the civil litigants as a gesture of thanks from a grateful nation. It could take the form of a giant tin-opener, and a location in Fleet Street might be appropriate.
These people changed everything.Without them the “one rogue reporter” lie would probably still be the official line from both News International and the Metropolitan Police. Rebekah Brooks would still be in her job, the ghastly Colin Myler would be editing the News of the World, Andy Coulson would be in 10 Downing Street and the press would still be telling us the PCC was an effective regulator.
A whole industry of deception, in other words, has crumbled thanks to the people compensated today and thanks to their predecessors who settled earlier, notably Sienna Miller.
And pathetic though News International’s legal defence has been lately, suing was never easy for the claimants. Think of the risks they exposed themselves to.
Back in 2010 when many of these cases began life, every politician knew that the Sun and the News of the World could wreck their reputations, and that these papers had more access to the prime minister (and his two predecessors) than any backbencher and most ministers. Suing probably looked like political suicide to most MPs.
Across television, cinema and sport, from Hollywood to India, New Corporation owns or controls far more than any other company, so if you were an actress, a sportsman, a football agent or a PR person you risked much more than your time and money by suing — you risked your livelihood.
As for ordinary people whose phones had been hacked, you might think they had nothing to lose by suing, but think again: this is a company that employed private investigators on an industrial scale. Would you be happy to have every aspect of your private life secretly investigated, and if the slightest blemish was found — perhaps involving a vulnerable relative — to have that exposed in the press?
So it took courage for these people to sue, and collectively they made the difference between News International escaping scot free and what we have now: substantial police investigations, a couple of dozen arrests, and the historic and far-reaching Leveson Inquiry.
If they can’t have a monument on Fleet Street, then what about MBEs all round?
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart