Kelvin McKenzie, the old Sun editor, was on BBC’s Newsnight program a few days ago, giving hell to a Labour member, Tom Watson, who had launched an attack, from the Commons, on the “undemocratic” power of the press. McKenzie sent him home in a sack, jeering that “… this is payback by parliament for the press revealing the expenses scandal and the total contempt MPs have for the public”.

Strong stuff, yet McKenzie’s storm/teacup argument was undercut by the very fact that he was presenting it — one time most powerful editor in the country, now a rather diminished figure, doing the studio rounds on behalf of the fourth estate.

McKenzie lost his place in the Sun in 1994, for one big reason — the huge number of libel suits piling up against the paper. UK red-top tabloids have always factored in a certain amount of losses from Britain’s insanely restrictive libel courts, but by the ’90s the Sun had lost the plot, every new adverse judgement spurring them on to yet more reckless attacks — usually on minor celebs, in stories of no legitimate public interest.

A bad case of judgement destroyed by deadline fever in the madly competitive UK newspaper world.

It’s looking likely that something similar was going on at the News of the World a few years back, with consequences that may be far more widespread. In 2007, it was revealed that reporters at the venerable Sunday scandal tabloid, owned by Murdoch since 1969, had been “hacking” into mobile phones used by sundry royals. The paper’s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, was jailed for four months, and editor Andy Coulson resigned.

Goodman had fallen on his sword and claimed that he had gone rogue, which sealed off the scandal and had the added advantage of making Coulson look noble. Few believed this version of events, and last year The Guardian alleged that the hacking — which consisted of gaining celebs’ mobile PIN numbers and retrieving their voicemails — was far more widespread, and extended to politicians, including the then deputy prime minister John Prescott, London mayor Boris Johnston, PR guru Max Clifford and — nice Stalinist touch, this —  Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade). It was also clear that NOTW had paid out millions in discreet settlements to those who’d been hacked and found out about it privately, via their mobile provider.

The scandal was revived this month, when The New York Times published the results of a months-long investigation, with ex News of the World journos alleging that the practice was widespread and sanctioned by Andrew Coulson himself — now working as Prime Minister David Cameron’s media supremo. The report also alleged that the Met police inquiry into the matter, headed by assistant commissioner John Yates, never probed deeply into the scandal, suggesting that this may have been motivated by a desire to keep a good working relationship with News Limited.

The revelations that the hacking was on a wider and more systematic scale has put News Ltd and Coulson under attack from all fronts. A dozen figures are now undertaking legal action against News, including Prescott, comedian Steve Coogan and actress Sienna Miller, and the number has been growing daily. Though Tory home affairs minister Teresa May tried to dismiss the issue last week, it has now been referred to the Commons’ Standards and Privileges committee — which has the power to compel witnesses to testify, something that the News Ltd crew have hitherto refused to do. And the Met has reopened the investigation, leaving the possibility that key figures in this affair may be hit with civil suits, contempt-of-Parliament citations, and criminal charges.

There’s no clear picture as to whether the hacking practice was instigated at the NOTW editorial level, or on the newsroom floor. But The Guardian‘s 2009 investigation revealed that News Ltd had been involved in negotiating settlements with afflicted parties to head off lawsuits. The nightmare scenario for News would be any revelation that senior ministers’ phones — including prime ministers’ phones — had been hacked, opening the possibility of serious charges connected with national security breaches.

Whether NOTW journalists, the paper as a whole or News Ltd was acting in this remains to be seen, but one thing is certain — the scandal has given parliament no choice but to act, desperate though they are to avoid a stoush with the Sun King. Once they let loose, something else comes into play — News has no friends in British politics. The News-Tory alliance of the ’80s is long gone and both Labour and the Conservatives loathe News because of its tabloids’ habit of chopping and changing on endorsement of them — in order to give the impression that “it was the Sun wot won it”.

The PM’s office has already started to limit its support for Coulson, announcing that they had “full confidence” in him, but pointedly refusing to take a stand on the veracity or otherwise of his version of events. Coulson was hired by the Tories as a direct route into Murdoch — a strategy they knew would be risky. Now there’s only bad options — sack him and look sleazy, or face months of questions about him. Given a full five-year term, that can be managed — but a closer election.

News may last out this storm — but if it doesn’t, the consequences will be far far greater than the Kelvin McKenzie’s flame out in the 1990s. Murdoch’s minions get collective psychosis like miners get black lung — it’s an occupational hazard of working for an organisation that sees itself as mounting a global challenge to state power. But in the last analysis, the state has got/the Gatling gun and they/do not.

Once the process has become legal, it gains a momentum of its own, and that point appears to have been passed some days ago. Poor old Kelvin McKenzie, wandering through the studios of London, looking forever like a punter waiting for Spearmint Rhino to open, may have got the better of it. This one will run and run.