THE BLOG

A Rare Prosecution, But Not the First

25/06/2014 13:40 BST | Updated 25/06/2014 13:59 BST

This is certainly one of the first cases of its kind and a rare prosecution but not the first - the original hacking arrests and prosecutions came in 2006, when Clive Goodman pleaded guilty and was convicted then subsequently jailed for offences covered by the Regulation Of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000, which prohibits anyone from intentionally and "without lawful authority" intercepting a communication in the course of its transmission on a private telecommunications system.

That's the criminal charge - RIPA also allows individuals to sue in the Civil Courts (as a great many high-profile public figures already have, most of whom pursued News International and latterly Trinity Mirror) usually alongside a claim for damages based on breach of confidentiality, data protection obligations and human rights violations.

Notably, Glenn Mulcaire, one of the key villains of the prosecution's piece, was convicted and imprisoned for his role in the original conspiracy behind the 2006 prosecutions. For the best part of a decade, the issue of phone hacking was portrayed by the press as the work of couple of bad apples in Fleet Street and RIPA was expected to remain a seldom-used criminal communications offence, although the Leveson enquiry and subsequent report changed all that. The scale of hacking was, as this trial has shown, far more widespread and institutional than even the conspiracy theorists suspected, and this case is the culmination of a wave of indignation and censure against the kind of intrusive tabloid journalism for which the UK is infamous on the world stage.

The defendants in this trial faced similar phone-hacking and conspiracy charges as the 2006 defendants, but also charges relating to perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office. These are notionally far more serious offences, carrying much longer maximum custodial sentences.

This trial was the eye of a perfect storm in that was a very high-profile case and a much more far-reaching prosecution in terms of punishment and implication than we saw in 2006 - the technical act of hacking is in truth only a part of the story, which reaches into wider issues relating to more entrenched and widespread criminal behaviour and an apparently unhealthy relationship between the press and public officials.

Whether or not the law around phone hacking is changed or new offences created will probably depend on the public reaction to Coulson's sentence. After all, there is a criminal offence specifically designed to deal phone hacking and which fits the act far better than the communications offences meant to apply to nuisance phone calls but kitbashed into a new and menacing shape to cover "obscene or menacing" messages sent via social media. But it carries a short jail term.

Dependent upon public and political reaction to the sentence, we may see calls for reform of RIPA but without such a widespread and pervasive scandal to justify that reform it's likely that this will be the end of criminal phone hacking cases, at least for the time being.

Overall, however, I'd expect that, unless far more cases come to light and victims call for tougher sanctions, then it'll be left alone and the more serious offences with wider latitude to cover serious misconduct such as the conspiracy, bribery and Perverting the Course Of Justice charges will continue to be used in conjunction with the more technical nature of RIPA to punish the defendants with longer sentences for more fundamentally objectionable behaviour."