The expenses scandal, expertly handled by The Telegraph Media Group, did perhaps ever lasting damage to British politics and politicians. The public believe politicians are 'in it for themselves', always on holiday and some of the most highly paid people in British society. The reality is far from this warped caricature. The expenses scandal did a great job in discovering a few crooks, amongst more bad apples, but on the whole it was the system itself found to be not fit for purpose. This didn't stop the media following the trail of blood left by the Telegraph to hunt like a pack; creating a feeding frenzy that developed a life of its own. It became impossible to ignore the lurid headlines of politicians being 'on the take' causing long-term reputational damage that will take many years to restore.
Admittedly the phone hacking scandal, at present, is different. One newspaper within one media group is accused of significant wrong-doing over a considerable period of time. However the parallels with the expenses scandal should be warning signs to other newspapers and media groups to tread carefully. Some newspapers (and politicians) who have campaigned on this issue for a long time are pushing hard for justice. Others, sensing blood and a commercial opportunity, are joining in the attack.
Here there are two points for editors and their journalists to consider. The sharp practices deployed by the News of the World were not used exclusively by that newspaper. Talk to many long-term tabloid journalists and they know this to be true. Glen Mulcaire, the private detective working for the News of the World, was also employed by other newspapers. As with the MPs expenses, it may not take long for the mud to start sticking elsewhere. If this were to be seen by the public as evidence of a culture of sharp-practice at the heart of British journalism all newspapers and media groups will suffer.
Second, is a sense of scale. With newspapers in particular, but media outlets in general in competition to 'move the story on' there are inevitably casualties - with MPs expenses it was those who were innocent but once named as miscreants were damaged goods - inevitably not everyone on in Glen Mulcaire's notebooks had their phones hacked. The story is at a point where allegations of wrong-doing are becoming 'fact' very quickly with the use of social media stoking demand for the next revelation. While journalists and media commentators are happy to belittle the standards of the News of the World and News International more broadly, they must remember to deal in the facts first as a story such as this can easily develop legs of its own (as those in the tabloid trade would say). Once that happens the spotlight can be turned on anyone which, for some, may not be a very comfortable experience.