Up until now, News International and the government have sought, and to some extent succeeded, in making the phone-hacking story one that is largely about celebrities.
Even for popular celebrities, there is little automatic public sympathy for the idea that a journalist or a private detective might listen in to their voicemail messages. ‘They use the media when it suits them, so they can hardly complain when they turn on them,’ is one fairly oft heard view. ‘If they’re daft enough to leave sensitive messages, serves them right,’ is another.
The Murdoch Empire strategy has been to lower the political temperature so that the takeover of BSkyB could go ahead (Andy Coulson’s departure from Downing Street was an important part of that) and to lower the legal temperature via a settlement fund, through which they hope to avoid the full extent of illegal phone-hacking coming out in open court.
The latest revelations concerning Milly Dowler have the capacity to change all of the above. I was out and about this afternoon, not plugged in to the media, and first realised something was going on via twitter. I asked what the fuss was about, and was pretty shocked when I got the answer. I passed it on at a charity event this evening, to people who had not heard the news, and the shock and disgust was palpable in a way that it had not been for Sienna Miller, Andy Gray, John Prescott et al.
The central issue – illegal activity by the media – has not changed. But the public and political reaction almost certainly has. I have argued for some time that this is an issue that just won’t go away. Never was that clearer than tonight.