LET me be clear from the start - I'm a phone hacker.
My editor has never asked me to hack a phone. I've never thought any story I've been working on was worth the risk involved. But I've done it and what's more I'd do it again.
When the opportunity presented itself I knew exactly how it worked. Not because a colleague had told me or because it was 'an open Fleet Street secret' in quite the way people believe, but because when I'd been abroad and wanted to access my voicemails I'd had to dial my own number and put my PIN code in to hear them, like every other customer. So it was T-Mobile that taught me how to do it.
The situation was this: I was married, my husband had cheated, and I'd chucked him out. He was talking about giving it another go and promised he hadn't had sex with her, so when I rang him one day and it went to voicemail I thought 'well, why not see if he's telling the truth?'
He wasn't, of course. It was the proof I needed to know my cynical tabloid instincts were right, and off I trotted to find a lawyer and my self-esteem.*
I don't believe, were anyone to present the above information to a police officer, he'd want to bother with the paperwork. I also don't think that should a jury be asked to consider my dreadful deed they'd convict, or if they did that a judge would do much more than shrug. Yes it's phone-hacking and yes it's a crime, but so is looking at a loved one's text messages or emails and how many of you have done that?
Now to Hackgate, the scandal gripping the Fourth Estate since 2005 when The Screws of the World's royal reporter Clive Goodman was nicked, along with private detective Glenn Mulcaire, for illegally accessing the phones of Royal staff on which they tapped into voicemails both about and left by Prince William and Prince Harry.
Only Clive and Glenn went down, and The Screws swore blind no-one else was involved. Clive's editor Andy Coulson swore just as blind at a House of Commons Select Committee and to a court under oath. A variety of the paper's executives went on the record as being completely surprised.
All of which was very convenient considering that Coulson was by that point the personal spin doctor for Prime Minister Dishface, whose 'man of the people' PR had helped the electorate forget its traditional antipathy towards posh people with foreheads larger than their gene pool. Dishface in turn was chums with those same surprised newspaper executives, and their newspapers came out in favour of Dishface at election time.
But after those first two foot-soldiers were jailed the story did not go away. Police had to admit a handful of other phones were 'probably' hacked - about two dozen - and that there were a couple of hundred names and details of high-profile people found in Mulcaire's office, which indicated they were 'of interest' to him but for which there was no evidence of hacking. Hacking needs proof from the phone companies of voicemails being accessed - and they don't keep the data for long. It was also in those firms' interests for the inquiry to fade because otherwise people like Sienna Miller might ask why their operatives were handing out her PIN codes to a gruff-voiced private 'tec claiming to be Sienna Miller. Perhaps Glenn Mulcaire is a better actress than she is.
At this point a number of other people got involved, not least lawyers who rang around some of the celebrities and offered to act for them and seek damages, no-win no-fee. These legal cases got further than either the Select Committee or the initial police inquiry, which was run by the counter-terrorism unit whose officers had a lot of other far more important police work to be doing than linking a p35 lead in The Screws about someone shagging someone they shouldn't have to a three-year-old phone bill.
The Screws had to hand over some emails they thought they'd lost, and several reporters and former members of staff have since been arrested and questioned. That's the end of the facts, and the start of what we in tabloid-land like to call "crystal bollocksing".
What happens next is known only to the police, but personally I'd expect those emails to contain more dirt than than they should and I'd put money on everyone involved turning to point their inky fingers at Mr Coulson, who I hope will have a lovely summer because come Christmas I reckon he'll be talking to lawyers about a perjury charge.
The Groaner, which has pursued the story relentlessly on behalf of its 260,000-and-dropping circulation since the start, claims there are 6,000-odd victims. The police say they don't have that kind of number, and seeing as there are many legitimate reasons for Mulcaire to have information about those in the news - address searches, finding family members, tracking down public information - I'd be surprised if that figure stands up. Added to which, I can't think of 6,000 different people of interest to newspapers. If Mulcaire really was doing work on that many stories then the real scandal is that Screws reporters can't be bothered to Google for themselves.
The main aim of the story is to get Coulson. If he had gone to work as a corporate spin doctor or for the Labour Party the story would have been allowed to drop - and that makes the people pursuing him just as immoral as those they claim to be rooting out. Every newspaper has a pet hate and when it's an individual there's little chance of escape, unless you've the hide of a rhino or you're Jade Goody, who as I recall is the only national hate figure to turn it round. Twice. If she were still with us Nick Clegg would be on the phone in a flash.
But until the net closes on Coulson there's lots of fun to be had with tabloid reporters like me, which is why Groaner columnist Charlie Brooker let fly today (and no I'm not linking to it) about how tabloids are "actively making the world worse". I wrote last week about celebrity shagging injunctions so I won't repeat those arguments here, but Charlie had abuse heaped upon him for turning on his own and in reply said he was surprised such hard-bitten types were so thin-skinned.
Leaving aside his shorthand abuse of an entire industry on the basis of the behaviour of its worst members - like saying all priests are paedophiles or all bankers are bastards - he was partially right. We are thin-skinned, not least because as life-forms we are rated slightly lower than estate agents and lawyers, and all of us are seen as being dirty Mackintosh-clad slimeballs with scales for skin and the morals of a WAG.
I got used to that years ago. A journalist is not a public figure in the same way as a politician or film star but we put our heads above the parapet on a regular basis and have to take our share of the flak.
The fact remains - as The Groaner's editor himself admitted a couple of weeks ago - that phone-hacking can be justified in some cases, along with a range of other minor crimes. Trespass, theft, speeding offences, impersonating people I shouldn't - I have done and will do any and all of these things, and a few more, if the story justifies it. I'd hack a phone, too, and I'll happily stand in front of a jury and tell them why. The problem for the journalists involved in Hackgate is that they can't justify it for a C-list shagging story.
If convicted, it's such a minor offence they'd get a few months. Coulson on a perjury charge wouldn't get much more than a year. No-one's been killed, injured or, for example, sent to war on the strength of a dodgy dossier. Hackgate is hardly Nazi-hunting.
Leaving the possible criminal cases aside, the main reason Sienna and her pals are instructing lawyers is civil claims for damages. She's already been offered £100,000, and turned it down. If The Screws gave me that much money they could have my mobile, my knicker drawer and write what they like about them. Miss Miller is apparently holding out for more, but she's probably not going to get it.
To prove voicemail interception, first off, is tricky in a criminal court. It's easier in a civil hearing because you just have to show it was likely, but you also need to prove your reputation was damaged to make it worth your lawyer's while. And without knowing which stories in particular are involved, arguably the celebrity claimants so far haven't been hurt by tabloid interest in their lives - but if at all, by their own actions. How can shamed chauvinist, love rat and ex-Sky Sports presenter Andy Gray claim defamation? And would Sienna Miller be in any films at all if it weren't for the tabloid interest in her relationships with famous men? Of the stories about them that are truly damaging, the source is more likely to be a disgruntled friend, employee or lover than their voicemails.
It's entirely possible the eight 'victims' so far allowed to go to court are not going to get anything more than a few pounds for all this legal trouble. Perhaps then they will learn the same thing I did - that sometimes phone hacking is damn useful.
* Full details of what happened after I hacked my husband's phone are available as a manuscript, should any publishers be reading and feel like the world needs another bonkbuster.