[LONDON] There's nothing quite like real news -- a story that sprints out in all directions, leaving history gasping to catch up. That's true of the scandal unfolding this past week turning on revelations about the Murdoch-owned news empire, the illegal and immoral activities of some of its journalists, and the suborning of both police and politicians. As David Cameron told Parliament today, the revelations and allegations add up to a "firestorm"; and no one knows what else will burn in its path.
There have been no dead bodies floating in the Thames, but at times it has felt like Depression-era Chicago under the rule of the Mob. The police failed properly to investigate allegations of phone-hacking by News of the World journalists because, it now seems plain, so many of them were in its pay -- or were recruited as columnists. While politicians paid homage to Murdoch in order to get elected, or became deaf to allegations for fear of having their private lives invaded, the press's own watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, turned out to be a toothless poodle.
But this is at the same time the story of the lone good cop battling against vested interests in the dogged pursuit of wrongdoers: the MPs who have continued to insist that the British tabloid press is a recklessly out of control, and a newspaper -- the Guardian -- whose patient pursuit of this story remind journalists of what they are for.
It is also, as of today, the story of a Government which, after some prevarication -- David Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, has done his fair share of Murdoch-courting -- has shown itself determined to dig deep in order to clear out the rotten roots.
The prime minister announced today a full-scale year-long enquiry, led by a judge, to investigate not just the malpractices of a newspaper corporation but the dark corners of the establishment which consciously or otherwise colluded in them. Lord Justice Leveson, assisted by a panel of senior independent figures, and with the power to summon witnesses to give evidence under oath and in public, will examine the connections between the press and politicians, as well as the press and police, and suggest how these might be regulated.
The enquiry will be fascinating not just for what it reveals but for the ethical questions which it will inescapably pose.
It is not just the illegal hacking of phones which is under scrutiny, but the technique known as 'blagging', when a journalist impersonates someone in order to get information. The former prime minister, Gordon Brown, has accused the Sun -- another Murdoch newspaper -- of using criminals and actors to get hold of his personal financial and medical information.
Blagging is a fairly common journalistic technique. It was used by the Daily Telegraph only last December to trap a government minister into revealing his hostility to Murdoch taking over BSkyB, when a journalist posed as one of his constituents and secretly recorded the conversation. If this enquiry leads to the banning of those kinds of practices, all the newspapers -- not just Murdoch's, and not only those who trade on celebrity tittle-tattle -- will be affected.
Over the next few months it is likely that we will all be furiously debating lofty questions normally confined to text books on ethics -- the balance between privacy and free speech; the notion of public interest and the common good; and not least the survival of newspapers themselves, which seems even more under question than before this scandal broke.
When is it right to do wrong? When does public interest justify the invasion of privacy? Who holds to account those who hold others to account? Is deception ever justified in the pursuit of a story?
If nothing else, the next year will offer us all a crash course in media ethics -- and the Church a grand opportunity to help shape the debate.