For months the Guardian story on phone-hacking at the News of the World has grumbled along, like a volcano that might or might not erupt. Grazing cows jangled their bells, farmers continued to plough the slopes, while keeping closely aware of shudders and tremors.
Then today it erupted in a great explosion of rage. MPs are furious, beside themselves, vengeful, frothing with anger. Now, at last, this was their great chance to get back at the tabloid press who have been tormenting them for years. Labour MPs also see a good chance of getting rid of Andy Coulson, which would be a delectable bonus for them, but it’s beyond that now. The whole short debate on phone hacking was a massive call to arms, the Marseillaise in prose, St Crispin’s Day for legislators, Tory, Labour, coalition – all of them. The scrumptious prospect of a few journalists going to jail and sharing cells with very large men whose favourite game is Mummies and Daddies hovered, unspoken, above the chamber.
It was introduced by Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda. Mr Bryant once arranged for himself to appear on a gay website clad only in his underpants, so he might not be thought of as a poster boy for the defence of privacy. Still, it should be up to all of us to decide what we want to keep private, or indeed where we keep our privates, and Mr Bryant spoke with all the weight of a former Europe Minister. He was also on the list of people who were subject to the attentions of Mr Glenn Mulcaire, the incredibly energetic hacker-by-appointment to the News of the World.
He was very cross indeed about the way the police had simply failed to follow up the information they held, and had not even warned the people who were on Mr Mulcaire’s extremely long list. “The police seem to have developed a new theology, whereby it is for the victim to discover and provide the evidence.” If the coppers had visited a stalker’s home and found photos of another 20 people on the walls, wouldn’t it have been their duty to inform them?As for the Commons, it was time for them to become “carnivorous”. Or were they going to remain supine?
He had not mentioned Mr Coulson, and John Whittingdale, the Tory who chairs the committee that earlier looked at the scandal, said the story should not get “mired in politics” and not be used “for political ends”. This translated as, “please leave David Cameron’s director of communications alone, I beg you. I might be a minister one day.” Too late, I fear.
Then Labour MP and attack dog Tom Watson rose. He was furious, not just with the redtops, but with his colleagues. The truth was they were scared. The tabloid aggressors were assassins – they faced no predators, they laughed at the law, and they jeered at parliament.
“We are powerless in the face of them, and we are afraid. That is the tawdry secret that dare not speak its name.” The most powerful in the land had helped to perpetuate a media culture that allowed decent people to be traduced (there’s a word your rarely hear in real life) “out of casual malice, for money, for spite, for sport. If we reject this motion, we will be guilty of letting that happen!”
Nobody was surprised when the house agreed unanimously, or at least nem con, to get the whole matter investigated by Mr Bryant’s committee. If I were Mr Coulson, I might think this was a good time to quit, and appeal to Rupert Murdoch for another job, paying possibly three times as much. At least it won’t be £140,000 of public money.
• This article was amended on 10 September 2010. The original referred to Chris Bryant as chairman of the Commons standards and privileges committee. This has been corrected.
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