Politicians Did not Close NOTW, Kill off the BSkyB Merger or Compel Rebekah Brooks to Resign. The Public Did

18/07/2011 11:50 BST | Updated 17/09/2011 10:12 BST

'There is no way you can report the politics of power without getting close to the people in power ... if you obsess about the process you stop talking about what matters'. It may sound like a confession from Rebekah Brooks, arrested yesterday amidst hacking allegations. In fact, it was a casual aside from respected BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, to a student newspaper in 2009.

Yet, the proximity of the media to those wielding authority - and journalistic 'process' - now faces searing scrutiny. The tidal wave of outrage triggered by hacking allegations claimed its latest scalp yesterday, when Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, resigned.

But, with daily revelations of fresh allegations, and months if not years of criminal and judicial inquiries ahead, what really matters in this crisis?

Above all, we need to preserve the rule of law, hold those in authority to account and defend free speech. If the insatiable thirst of the prurient British public for salacious gossip encouraged journalists to break the law for scoops, it now requires patience to clear up the mess. It takes time to gather evidence to ensure responsible for hacking the phones of victims of crime - or, worse, interfering with police investigations - ends up in the dock, and then jail. Only then will the wider judicial inquiry be able to give us a clearer sense of the big picture - and how to alter it for the good.

The most serious allegations now face the police. If upheld, claims that officers sold operational information for stories will do lasting damage to public confidence.

Already, they are infecting questions about why the police did not investigate earlier allegations of hacking - especially relating to the victims of crimes. If officers were on the take from potential culprits, even reasonable arguments about resources and priorities will ring hollow.

In contrast, while the occasional police lunch or dinner with News of the World (NOTW) editors looks fishy under the magnifying glass of hindsight, cosy media ties weren't confined to the tabloids. Sir Paul Stephenson lunched with the tabloids, but also partied with the editor of The Guardian. His predecessor, Sir Ian Blair, lunched with the editor of The Sun, and enjoyed test match cricket courtesy of the BBC.

The clamour around Sir Paul's acceptance of free accommodation from a family friend to stay at a health farm, whilst recovering from a tumour - only to later find out the firm was advised by former NOTW Deputy Editor Neil Wallis, now arrested - had the whiff of the media lynch mob about it. But, Sir Paul resigned to take responsibility for wider questions engulfing the force.

Most taxpayers would be surprised that the capital's police chiefs spent so much time courting the media, instead of concentrating on policing. The Met's hiring of Wallis for strategic media advice, at £1,000 per day, looks like warped priorities for London.

Beyond Sir Paul, the answer is greater transparency and stronger accountability through the Metropolitan Police Authority. Nor is the Met the only force in need of more rigorous oversight. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has developed into a formidable lobbying group - most controversially backing an extension of pre-charge detention to 90 days, without a shred of evidence it was necessary. ACPO also runs a range of lucrative commercial side-lines. But, it remains accountable to no-one. Equally, if claims of bungs extend beyond the capital, it will strengthen the case for elected police commissioners - so the public can hold their local force to account for their priorities and performance.

Meanwhile, politicians tread a perilous line between responding to the crisis - and politicising it. With no tinge of irony, Ed Miliband lapped up media credit for his decisive response. But, he is close to stretching his own credibility. Calling for the judicial inquiry to start with police investigations underway risked undermining them - one reason why the last government resisted public inquiries into cash for honours and the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Attacks on the hiring of Andy Coulson border on hypocrisy, given the resignation in disgrace of Miliband's former colleague, Damian McBride, and swirling allegations around his current director of communications. Miliband's overt interference in the quasi-judicial process for deciding the BSkyB merger, enshrined in Labour's own Enterprise Act, marked a triumph of political expediency over principle. And his latest call for new rules on newspaper ownership to address the 'dangerous' 'concentration of power' in the hands of News Corporation smacks of rank opportunism, unless what is good for the newspaper goose is also good for the broadcasting gander - the BBC's media control dwarfs all the rest combined.

Politicians did not close NOTW, kill off the BSkyB merger or compel Rebekah Brooks to resign. The public did. The repetitional damage to News International's brand - people power - forced their hand. The real test for the political class arrives with the debate on media regulation.

The Press Complaints Commission has been discredited. A stronger mechanism of oversight, at arms-length from politicians and the media, is needed. But, that is not the same as calling for tighter legal restrictions on reporters. None of the improprieties now under scrutiny were lawful - from hacking to bribery. The failure was one of law enforcement.

To appreciate the risks of tighter fetters on what journalists write, just cast an eye across the Channel. A culture of secrecy masked serial allegations of sexual impropriety against Dominique Strauss-Khan, former frontrunner for the French Presidency, and shielded Jacques Chirac from corruption charges during his presidency. Because of media restrictions, Jacques Barrot was appointed EU Transport Commissioner in 2004, without prior disclosure of his criminal conviction for embezzlement. The last thing the British public want is continental-style confidentiality laws that bury wrongdoing.

There are no quick-fixes or easy answers to the unfolding scandal. But, there are plenty of elephant traps - and the threat to media freedom may be the greatest of all.