Six people, including former News International head Rebekah Brooks, have been arrested in Britain, on a variety of charges arising from the News International phone-hacking scandal. Brooks is charged with “attempting to pervert the course of justice”.

Brooks is already on bail having been charged with “suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications and on suspicion of corruption allegations” in July last year. The arrests yesterday are more serious — “perversion of the course of justice’ is a life-sentence crime.

The arrests were made early Tuesday morning, and hit the morning radio and TV news — despite no names being mentioned, news of a “43-year-old woman from Oxfordshire” made it instantly clear who it was to millions following the case with glee.

Also arrested was Brooks’ husband, Charlie, a racehorse trainer, and shires Hooray Henry, who, in his column in the Telegraph (yes, of course he has a column in the Telegraph), remarked that “the happiest moment of my year is about three hours before the first race at Cheltenham on Tuesday queuing … for my … first pint of Guinness of the meeting” … Yeah, not so much this year. This morning he was in chokey, trying to work out whether he and his wife should share a lawyer or not.

Four other people have been arrested, including Mark Hanna, head of security at News International.

The most recent charges appear to stem not from the act of phone hacking itself, but from wholesale attempts to destroy large amounts of evidence in the form of emails, as civil suits against phone hacking began in 2009.

Following the initial revelations concerning the phone hacking by News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman in 2006, the case had lain dormant for nearly three years, until reports surfaced of the systemic nature of the hacking.

Since 2009, there have been increasingly desperate attempts to maintain the original defence that Goodman was a “rogue reporter” — a process aided by the determination of the police not to pursue the case at any cost.

Unsurprisingly, as subsequent revelations have shown that News Corp, through its red-top tabloids, had been paying literally millions of pounds to police for tips, favours and phone numbers.

Once the full collusion of the police was demonstrated and a separate series of investigations inaugurated — one of which, Weeting, nabbed Brooks and Co this morning — there was no chance of avoiding anything at all.

That has now become News Corp’s main problem, because it’s now clear that for the past three years or more, it has been running a wholesale data destruction program, not merely deleting emails, but destroying the actual computers that reporters had been using at the time.

That, together with Brooks’ remarks to a parliamentary committee several years ago, to the effect that News “had paid police for information in the past” — may be enough to land her and others in deep trouble.

Today’s arrests are bad news not merely for those fingered, but for la famiglia Murdoch. The whole scandal has proceeded so far by lower levels of the grand conspiracy collapsing, and implicating higher executives — as with News’ former legal supremo dobbing in James Murdoch, on the “for Neville” email, which demonstrated that Murdoch jnr had knowledge of systemic hacking, and denied such when speaking to Parliament.

Brooks has been among the most loyal of Murdoch’s minions, but she is now in serious trouble, with the prospect of a felony charge and conviction looming. Would the temptation to distribute the blame by blaming the family prove all too tempting? Former NotW editor Andy Coulson — who will almost certainly face charges — is desperately suing News to try and get payment for his legal fees restored.

Otherwise, he’ll be going up against the plod using the Basildon court duty solicitor. Like all participants, perhaps the most draining thing he’s facing is that these matters will drag on for years, overshadowing every area of his life.

The whole issue has become enormously complicated by the fact that the whole thing has been brought to public attention by the Leveson inquiry, which has been running in parallel to the police inquiries. Without the lash of Leveson, the police wouldn’t have been compelled to actually make any sort of investigation.

Yet the fact that it’s been a forum where people can make any sort of allegations they liked — with Brooks being called among other things the “criminal-in-chief”, — may paradoxically give Brooks and other grounds to say that they could not possibly receive a fair trial.

That was underscored yesterday when Met PR flack Dick Federocio, gave evidence, denying that he had fixed the tendering process to allow a former News of the World hack to get a plumb PR job at the Yard.

Every day it sits, Leveson reveals a whole new level of complicity, turning the picture around. But with no sanction powers, or tight evidentiary rules, its lawyers can go on fishing expeditions.

And what of Charlie Brooks? His involvement may involve many issues — he is after all a friend of the Prime Minister’s, who is conveniently in the US while all this is going on — but not least concern “Horsegate”, the scandalette in which Brooks was lent an old police horse, for riding purposes.

It now appears that the horse may have been gained by offering an internship to a Met officer’s son, or something — to tell you the truth I’ve been following this thing all day and still haven’t covered all the angles. The story has sprawled beyond the boundaries of the individual mind — there is simply too much of it to take in. It will run and run, long after the last drop of vicarious joy has been rung from it. It may outlast News Corp in Britain — and it has a pretty good chance to outlive Rupert Murdoch.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey