Neil Hall
Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie leave the Old Bailey courthouse in London June 24, 2014.

Britain's phone-hacking trial is over. Now what?

The verdicts may be in for the News of the World phone-hacking trial. But the jury is still out on the future of the British press.

One of the most closely watched and expensive trials in British history, the phone-hacking case that included several officials from Rupert Murdoch's News International and the now defunct News of the World newspaper is now all but over.

Andy Coulson, former editor of the paper and former senior aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, was the only person found guilty of conspiracy to intercept voice mails and phone calls. Former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks and several others were acquitted.

But while the trial now looks to be done, the debate on how Britain should regulate the press isn’t.

Britain's media outlets and politicians continue to debate press regulation, with a self-regulatory but much criticized organization set to launch later this year. And regardless of the phone-hacking trial's outcome, trouble could yet lie ahead for Mr. Murdoch and his news media empire, as Scotland Yard launches its own investigations into News International's practices.

Who watches the watchers?

Shortly after the scandal broke, Mr. Cameron announced an investigation into press practices. The year-long Leveson Inquiry, which ended in 2012, resulted in a 2,000-page report finding that an independent media regulator should be established to help combat unethical behavior because the existing Press Complaints Commission was no longer fit for the task.

But two years later, journalists, politicians, and activists – including the prominent media-critical advocacy group Hacked Off – remain at odds over how the press should be regulated in the UK.

In March 2013, the government announced a new, independent press regulator with the power to issue fines of up to $1.5 million and force publications to issue corrections and apologies. Though the proposed regulator was supported by political parties across the spectrum, newspaper editors heavily criticized the move as restricting freedom of the press. They railed against the proposed regulator on their opinion pages.

The government attempted to reach a compromise with a royal charter. As the Financial Times notes, “Originally a medieval form of documentation, which was used to oversee the BBC and set up universities, Mr. Cameron argued a royal charter would allow the press to establish a regulator without the need for a new law.”

But British publications didn’t accept this proposal either and instead set up their own regulating body, the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO). IPSO is expected to launch this September and describes itself as a “new, tough, independent organisation being established to regulate the UK’s newspapers and magazines.”

The Financial Times reports that 90 percent of national papers, and some regional papers, have signed onto IPSO. The Guardian and The Independent are still debating their options, and the Financial Times itself did not sign on and appointed its own independent commissioner.

Hacked Off has been critical of IPSO, prominently displaying on its website that the group is “the press regulator backed by the Murdoch papers, the Mail, the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Express.” Mr. Murdoch was the chairman and CEO of News Corporation, News International's parent company, when the phone hacking took place.

What about Rupert Murdoch?

While the trial may have ended (unless a retrial is called for on Monday), The Guardian reported today that Scotland Yard officially notified Murdoch that they want “to interview him as a suspect as part of their inquiry into allegations of crime at his British newspapers.” Murdoch was contacted last year, but it was agreed the interview would take place after the phone hacking trial ended.

Murdoch’s News UK responded with a statement following the verdicts yesterday saying, “We said long ago, and repeat today, that wrongdoing occurred, and we apologized for it. We have been paying compensation to those affected and have co-operated with investigations.... And we are strong supporters of the Independent Press Standards Organization....”

But with Coulson found guilty, the situation is still far from over for Murdoch. As The Guardian notes:

The verdict on Coulson also means that Murdoch's UK company is now threatened with a possible corporate charge, while the media owner also faces the prospect of a dozen more criminal trials involving his journalists as well as hundreds more legal actions in the high court from the alleged victims of phone hacking by the News of the World.

Murdoch’s UK company has already paid damages to 718 victims of phone hacking.

Whether or not Murdoch and his corporations are charged with wrongdoing, as an industry, Britain's press has eased its cutthroat tabloid culture. As Barnie Choudhury, a principal lecturer in journalism at Lincoln University, told Monitor correspondent Ian Evans in 2013, “We’re in a hiatus at the moment when journalists have been arrested as well as police, prison officers, so newsdesks are being careful. It’s what happens when the spotlight is off them which will be interesting.”

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