IN a saga punctuated by landmark incidents, yesterday's announcement of charges against former News of the World editors and executives marks yet another landmark in this extraordinary tale. Caution must be our watchword: being charged doesn't mean guilt.
But the very fact that eight people are to go to trial is significant. It is right for the public to view it as a transformational moment as, no doubt, do the defendants. One other man who surely sees the matter in serious terms is Prime Minister David Cameron. The political implications are obvious.
His former communications director, Andy Coulson, faces five charges of conspiracy to intercept communications without lawful authority during his editorship of the News of the World. His predecessor, Rebekah Brooks, who went on to become chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International and spent weekends socialising with Cameron, faces three such charges.
Seen in the context of the media, however, the only possible single-word description is "unprecedented". I have grown used to using that term at various turning points in this scandal but I make no apology for doing so again because it is entirely justified.
Since the mid-19th-century foundation of the modern commercial press -- the News of the World was launched in 1843 -- there has never been a prosecution of journalists on this scale. Whatever the outcome of the case, that fact is a watershed, for national newspapers and for journalism as whole. The Director of Public Prosecutions says the 19 charges involve more than 600 alleged phone- hacking victims and, of those, the one that naturally draws the eye is Milly Dowler, the 13-year old who was abducted and murdered in 2002. It was the revelation on July 4 last year that her voicemail messages had been intercepted that set off an astonishing train of events.
In response to a public explosion of anger, it brought about the resignation of Britain's highest-ranking policeman and another senior Scotland Yard officer; prompted the resignation of Brooks and another high-ranking News Corporation executive; caused the closure of the News of the World, Britain's highest-selling Sunday paper; and resulted in News Corp being forced to withdraw from a huge deal that would have given Murdoch's company total ownership of BSkyB.
Crucially, it also forced an embarrassed Cameron to institute the judicial inquiry, under Lord Justice Leveson, into the standards and practices of the entire British press. …