Old hacks left in need of a lift

So we’ll have to wait a year to learn the fate of former News International executive Rebekah and Andy Coulson, the man who moved from running the News of the World to masterminding Downing Street’s communications for David Cameron. They, and five more former NotW journalists (I hesitate to use the word ‘hacks’ in this context) learned today that the provisional date for their trial on phone hacking charges is September 9th next year.

In the meantime Ms Brooks, her husband Charlie and five other men also face charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The Old Bailey hearing that set the 2013 trial date was told by prosecutors that the hacking allegations could relate to more than 600 victims.

That news came hot on the heels of the revelations just the day before that nearly 300 claims for damages have been filed in the High Court against News International for alleged hacking. The names of people who’ve lodged civil lawsuits for invasion of privacy reads a bit like the invitation list for a not quite A-rated Celebs party. There’s Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Lorna Hogan, the former girlfriend of Calum Best, a smattering of TV actors and Neil and Glenys Kinnock. From the ranks of past and present Premier League footballers we have Noel Whelan, Chris Kiwomya and Neil Ruddock.

Many of the names, though, are less well known and include relatives of the relatively famous – so we have Davina McCall’s husband – or the families of victims of crime or of accused people. What, I wonder, was to be gained by hacking the phone of the parents of Louise Woodward, the British nanny convicted when she was 19 of the manslaughter of a child in her care in the USA?

What’s clear from the proceedings in both the High Court and the Old Bailey is that we have come a long way from the idea that any illegal hacking was limited to one rogue reporter. The idea, too, that the use of this questionable newsgathering technique was somehow in the public interest is also dead in the murky water.

Of course, by the time the cases against Mr. Coulson, the Brookses and the others have been heard we will know what Lord Leveson has made of the mass of evidence he heard and read during his long-running inquiry into press standards. His report is due soon and he has already given notice to newspaper editors that it will include recommendations on everything from privacy to self-regulation.

Even before his report is published, it’s been suggested that the impact of his inquiry is being felt. No British newspaper published the pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge topless on her French holiday –a situation we might not have seen before the inquiry. But that incident throws up another question. The French have a privacy law and Wills and Kate used it to prevent further publication of the pictures in France but that hasn’t prevented them cropping up in publications elsewhere and on numerous sites on the web (I was shown them on a Nigerian blog). Whatever Lord Leveson recommends and whatever system of media regulation is then put in place will do nothing to stop the spread of information, pictures, damaging gossip, and the rest, through the web and social media. That leaves the thought that our press is not just on a final warning but left punctured on the hard shoulder of the information highway.