If you didn’t cry, you’d laugh. There are elements of farce to the saga gripping Britain—a tangled tale of criminality and corruption, of phone-hacking, glad-handing and back-slapping, of politicians in thrall to the power of the press and of police in the pay of the press. But for some it has been a tragedy compounded. Take Graham Foulkes. His 22-year-old son David was one of 52 people killed by suicide bombers in London six years ago. The police have informed Foulkes that in the immediate aftermath his mobile phone may have been hacked by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the News of the World. “It fills me with horror,” Foulkes told the BBC. “You think it’s as dark as it can get then you realize there’s someone out there who can make it darker.”
That sentiment resonates with the family and friends of other victims of the bombings and victims of other acts of violence: the parents of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, whose phone was allegedly hacked during the manhunt that followed her 2002 disappearance, raising false hopes she may be alive, and potentially disrupting the investigation; the mother of Sarah Payne, an 8-year-old killed by a pedophile in 2000, who has been warned her own phone may have been hacked; and the parents of murdered 10-year-old school friends Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, who received similar alerts. Targets of hacking may also include not only the parents of Madeleine McCann, a 3-year-old presumed abducted in Portugal in 2007, but their press spokesman, appointed to help them handle the intense media interest after their daughter vanished.
The damage to these families is incalculable. Sympathy for celebrities whose illegally obtained secrets have been splattered across newsprint is more limited, though their suffering will have been real enough and their non-celebrity friends and contacts often suffered too. But the story unfolding in the British press about endemic malpractice in some corners of the British press isn’t just about the travails of individuals. As nasty revelation follows appalling detail, faith in the core institutions of British public life, already battered by the 2009 scandals around the predilection of some politicians for milking their expenses, is being further shredded. On July 6, as Prime Minister David Cameron made an effort during his weekly interrogation by MPs in the House of Commons to respond to concerns about hacking, the scale of the problem became clear.
Cameron is perceived as having too unhealthily close a relationship with the News of the World‘s parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, to give leadership on questions about its behavior and influence. The Prime Minister has often socialized with Rebekah Brooks, a former editor both of NOTW and its sister paper, the Sun. He employed, as his communications director, Andy Coulson, another former NOTW editor, who had resigned from the paper after the criminal conviction of its royal correspondent and Mulcaire for hacking the phones of Princes William and Harry, their friends and aides. During a stormy confrontation with Labour leader Ed Miliband, Cameron refused Miliband’s invitation to join him in calling for Brooks to stand down from her current role as chief executive of News International in the U.K. (With Murdoch’s backing she remains in post for now, leading an internal investigation that might be expected to look into her own tenure at NOTW.) And Cameron visibly flinched as Miliband described his appointment of Coulson as “a catastrophic error of judgment.”
If the Prime Minister’s relationships with Brooks and Coulson were his only problem, Cameron would face—and eventually face down—such criticisms. What catapults the phone-hacking imbroglio from political embarrassment to looming constitutional crisis are growing doubts about the ability of Scotland Yard to investigate the catalogue of complaints from suspected hackees. “Let’s let the police get on with their job,” implored Cameron to hoots of derision from angry parliamentarians. But amid reports that emails, recently provided by the News of the World to police conducting the investigation, implicated some fellow police officers in having received tens of thousands of pounds in payment for information from the same newspaper, their anger is understandable. Claims that these payments were made during Coulson’s editorship add to Cameron’s woes.
With confidence in Scotland Yard’s ability to investigate itself about as high as, well, confidence in News International’s ability to investigate itself, the government has accepted the need for a public inquiry or series of inquiries into the hacking and police corruption allegations and wider issues of media regulation. Ministers continue to insist that they have no power to intervene to halt Murdoch’s planned takeover of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, expected to be given the green light on July 8, but some commentators believe the reputational damage to News International and its parent company News Corporation may force Murdoch and his executives to delay the move. NOTW is already hemorrhaging advertisers, with automakers Ford, Mitsubishi and Vauxhall, the Co-operative Group, Lloyds Banking Group and Virgin Holidays all pulling campaigns and more enterprises expected to follow suit.
“We have let one man have too great a sway over public life,” said Labour MP Chris Bryant, opening an emergency parliamentary debate on hacking on July 6 with a salvo against Murdoch. “At least Berlusconi lives in Italy.” For decades, British politicians have sought favor with the Australian-American tycoon and his mass-market newspapers. That era might just be ending. Now those politicians and the police and the press have to figure out how to find favor with the people who really matter: the public they purport to serve.
Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/pages/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly/. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.