Why is everyone (politicians, the rest of the media, even readers) gunning for the News of the World?

There are exceptions of course, like the staff and owners of News Corporation and, it would seem, the Metropolitan Police but the News of the World, the world ‘s second biggest-selling newspaper after its daily stablemate the Sun, is finally reaping the rewards of a century and a half of dedicated muck-raking.

For the most part even its victims have been prepared to lick their wounds and run away as far as possible, but now, in the midst of the phone hacking scandal involving (somehow or other) former editor Andy Coulson, now David Cameron’s director of communications, they’re fighting back.

Some of the victims of its phone hacking, including celebrity PR man Max Clifford and Professional Footballers Association boss Gordon Taylor have chosen to accept the paper’s money to stay out of court (£1m in the case of Clifford, £700,000 for Taylor).

Others, including MP Chris Bryant and former Labour deputy leader John (now Lord) Prescott) are demanding retribution while the Guardian in the UK and the New York Times are leading the press pack in pursuit of the paper although other UK tabloids are doing as little as possible, presumably fearful that the finger of suspicion about hacking may soon point in their direction.

Predictably the net has widened as the Met has come under pressure for confining its original investigation to the activities of former royal correspondent Clive Goodman and his private eye accomplice Glenn Mulcaire (both jailed).

More witnesses from the paper are coming to light including Sean Hoare, who was dismissed over drink and drugs matters, and, most recently, a junior reporter Ross Hall. Hall has told the Guardian he was responsible for transcribing various hacked voicemails and reported to, among others, the paper’s veteran chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck. Hall is also the nephew of former editor Phil Hall, who now runs PR firm PHA Media, which may mean something or nothing.

So far eluding the sleuths is the paper’s celebrated investigator Mazher Mahmood, the famous ‘fake sheikh,’ whose flowing arab robes (when he’s at work of course) have convinced a number of gullible people to compromise themselves when faced with his trademark briefcase full of cash. The Duchess of York and the agent of some members of the Pakistani cricket team fall into this dozy group.

The phone hacking issue is serious of course, particularly given the role of government spinner Coulson, but there’s also the widespread desire to give the paper and Rupert Murdoch its ultimate owner a good and, to many, overdue working over.

Victims of previous stings include former England manager Sven-Goran Ericsson and David Beckham, whose trysts with former PA Rebecca Loos were exposed by chief reporter Thurlbeck. Thurlbeck was also involved in the exposure of former Formula One chief Max Mosley and his liking for sado-masochistic orgies in Chelsea. Mosley, though, sued and in a judgement that confounded and dismayed Fleet Street was awarded £50,000 for a breach of his ‘privacy.’

The Human Rights Act, under which former barrister Mosley brought his action, is actually the biggest threat to the Screws, as it’s known. From its foundation in 1843 the paper has never been a respecter of this particular concept.

In the meantime it looks as though the ever-unpopular paper (despite selling all those copies, in the 1950s it used to sell eight million against its current 2.9m) must embark on a damage limitation exercise, sauve qui peut.

Its old mates in the Met now have their own reputation to defend, so they’re finally on its tail, as do Coulson’s employers in the coalition government. The management of News Corporation may be wondering if their hitherto robust defence of News of the World editors and staff is still the right policy.

Because it’s now too late for a Coulson resignation, surely inevitable, to put the cat back in the bag.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.