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Raymond Snoddy 

A great day for red tops?

A great day for red tops?

After the verdicts in the phone-hacking trial are delivered, Raymond Snoddy examines the implications for politicians, journalists, regulators and newspaper boardrooms.

At the end of the "trial of the century" after no less than eight months in court, it would be tempting to think that the worst of the phone-hacking crisis is now over. The split verdict with Andy Coulson found guilty and Rebekah Brooks innocent of all charges seems to underline the complexity, and potential ambiguity, of the affair.

In fact we haven't even reached half time yet in terms of assessing the reputations of both the individuals and institutions involved. The main players include News UK, as News International is now called, the Murdochs, Prime Minister David Cameron, press regulators, the newspaper industry itself and the police.

In terms of trials we have scarcely scratched the surface yet with eleven court cases pending at the Old Bailey, mainly of former News International journalists, not to mention the fact that Coulson and two other former News of the World journalists will face a range of charges in Scotland, including perjury and phone-hacking.

Even allowing for the obvious pun on Rebekah Brooks's hair, the Sun headline, "Great Day For Red Tops", seems more than a little premature.

One clear implication of the innocent verdicts on Mrs Brooks, her husband Charlie and work colleagues is that, for now at least, guilt has not managed to seep beyond the editorial floor into executive levels in the boardroom of News Corporation.

This leaves one enormous question hanging in the air. In a company known for its careful control of budgets, how credible is it that no-one apart from journalists and editors knew what relatively large sums of money were being spent on?

In terms of executives, the obvious adage applies: if you knew you were culpable and if you didn't you're incompetent.

The state of knowledge on this issue could improve considerably in the coming months when around 20 journalists make their Old Bailey appearances. Who knows what names will come out in evidence from the mouths of those facing jail.

According to The Guardian the police have already requested an interview with Rupert Murdoch and they may be equally keen to talk to his son James, the former head of News International.

Les Hinton, former chief executive of News International, and a man usually seen as one of the good guys has, it is believed, already been interviewed under police caution.

The greatest danger of all for the Murdochs will come if a decision is taken to go for a corporate prosecution of what was at the time News International, although this could only happen if there was evidence that senior executives - the "controlling minds" of the organisation - knew what was happening.

The reality is that what most people want - more responsible press behaviour - has in fact already been delivered."

At the very least the Murdoch companies will continue to face expensive and embarrassing civil litigation as more and more victims of phone-hacking come to light.

How damaged will David Cameron be in the long-term by the Coulson affair? Or will the abject apology he promised and delivered be enough to save his skin?

His stubborn decision to employ Andy Coulson in Downing Street, despite all advice to the contrary, will raise question-marks about his judgement but will be as nothing if a couple of his other wheezes - referenda on Scottish independence and on EU membership - were to turn out badly.

In electoral terms the affair will, however, play into the image of a Prime Minister out-of-touch with the average citizen who was far too cosy with media barons, bartering for influence at kitchen suppers.

The pain for the newspaper industry will continue, even though most papers and the vast majority of journalists never had anything to do with either phone-hacking or making corrupt payments to public officials.

Again, there will be day after day of court evidence exposing wrong-doing with the attendant danger that all will be tarred with the same brush in the public mind.

It will also become very clear that the News of the World was not the only paper using illegal phone-hacks to get their celebrity stories.

As for the police, there has been remarkably little evidence of any willingness to investigate why so little action was taken on phone-hacking and illegal payments for leaks until the balloon went up with the Milly Dowler story. And no explanation has ever been forthcoming.

Where do we stand now on press regulation?

It is imperative that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) gets up and running as quickly as possible and begins to prove that it is capable of acting with independence under the chairmanship of retired judge Sir Alan Moses.

The campaigning body Hacked Off will never let go of its bone and will have lots of trial evidence to use as ammunition.

The good news is that the vulnerability of David Cameron on this issue might lead him to take the less abrasive course and accept IPSO, at least for now, rather than facing a bruising confrontation with the newspaper industry in the run-up to a general election.

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid has implicitly recognised IPSO rather than trying to force through a Royal Charter which virtually no-one in the publishing industry wants.

The reality is that what most people want - more responsible press behaviour - has in fact already been delivered.

Is there anyone out there, apart perhaps from Hacked Off die-hards, who believe that newspapers will try to continue with either phone-hacking or corrupt payments for information?

Apart from those guilty of breaking the law it is time to get on with the serious business of trying to ensure that newspapers have an economic future.

And what does the future hold for Rebekah Brooks? A new life in Australia? A tell-all autobiography and maybe a Hollywood film?

Two things you can be reasonably sure of - her previously warm relationship with Rupert Murdoch will never be the same again.

And despite being found not-guilty on all counts it is also very unlikely she will ever be a media executive in the UK again - apart, possibly, at Rebekah Brooks Associates.

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