First it was the the market -- the collapse of 2008; then the state -- the MPs' expenses scandal. Now comes the third great crisis of trust in British institutions, this time in the 'third estate'. The discovery of the rot at the heart of journalism -- yesterday Rupert Murdoch was forced to shut down the News of the World, Britain's biggest-selling tabloid, after shocking revelations that it had paid for the hacking of phones of a murdered schoolgirl and the families of bombing victims - has much in common with the other two crises. In each case, the perpetrators believed themselves above the law, exploiting the trust placed in them for profit.
Although the phone-hacking scandal has been rumbling for some years, ever since the Guardian's Nick Davies first ran stories about tabloids using private investigators to listen to the voicemail messages of politicians and celebrities, it exploded earlier this week after it was shown how the pain and distress of ordinary people were also exploited.
But the scandal is also, much more deeply, about establishment complicity. The Metropolitan Police, who are now doing a thorough investigation, earlier made little effort to get at the truth -- not least because many of them were paid for information by the newspaper; the executives of the News of the World are now known to have lied brazenly to Parliament; and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the newspapers' cosy body which is supposed to self-regulate, has been exposed as toothless (the prime minister today announced it would close). As Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has patiently brought this story to light over many years, concludes this informative background video:
It isn't a story about journalists behaving badly, it's a story about the power elite. It's about the most powerful news organisation in the world, it's about the most powerful police force in the country, it's about the most important political party in the country, and for good measure it's about the Press Complaints Commission. And about how they all spontaneously colluded together to make everyone's life easier; about the way in which they casually assumed that the law didn't apply to them, and in which they equally casually assumed that it was perfectly okay to lie to the rest of us because we're little people. And that's what makes me ultmately feel angry about it, because of those arrogant assumptions in the power elite.
Or as the prime minister, announcing a judge-led public enquiry, put it starkly this morning: "For people watching this scandal unfold, there is something disturbing about what they see. Just think of who they put their trust in. The police to protect them. The politicians to represent them. The press to inform them. All of them have let them down."
The cleaning of this institutional stable has strong implications for of politics and politicians, which for many years were organized around the assumption that Murdoch's News International was capable of winning or losing elections for the parties. The deference of politicians to the newspaper group was astonishing; and it led to brazen arrogance on the part of News International executives, who refused to turn up to parliamentary select committees, sending lawyers in their stead. Those MPs who dared to criticize soon found their private lives turned over, and salacious stories about them spread over the news pages.
Now is the time of their revenge. I have seldom seen Parliament so angry as it was yesterday, as MP after MP lined up to call for the resignation of News International's chief executive Rebekah Brooks [pictured] -- a friend of the prime minister's -- who was editor of the News of the World when hacking was the newspaper's regular practice. Astonishingly, she clings to her job -- while 200 staff at the newspaper are made unemployed.
There is little doubt that this scandal has put an end to that deference; and one of the fruits of this scandal will be a more tightly-regulated press and a privacy law. Just as the banks and the derivatives traders can no longer be trusted to self-regulate, so newspapers can no longer be trusted to hold themselves to account.
But before we get there, there is much more to come. News of the World may have been an especially rogueish newspaper, but it was not the only rogue. All the sensationalist press -- the tabloids, and especially the Daily Mail -- have made millions out of invading private lives, confusing public interest with popular demand for smut, and restrained only by the remote possibility of their victims choosing to bring lengthy, costly law suits.
To those who have acted callously in the name of holding others to account, there will be little mercy shown.