The Cock-Up Theory of History (aka the law of unintended consequences) gained a rich new chapter last week. In paragraph one, Vince Cable, supreme ministerial joke-cracker, became a bit of joke himself. In par two, assorted Liberal Democrats hopped with rage. But, from par three on, the mover and shaker of all these events, the Daily Telegraph, found itself at cock-up centre, too.
Why should any sentient newspaper want to send a couple of pretty women reporters, masquerading as concerned constituents, to Lib Dem MPs' surgeries, recording what targeted ministers said? Perhaps to show "that a holier-than-thou approach to the grubby business of government continues to be widely shared on the Liberal Democrat benches pure self-indulgence". Telegraph reveals: No saints in cabinet shock! Self-indulgent sinners must quit now!
It was all, to be frank, a bit of a damp exercise no competition for WikiLeaks, let alone the Telegraph's own expenses scoop. So MPs tell their constituents what they want to hear? So pass the mince pies. So Cable has a high opinion of himself? So maybe I'll have a spot of cream as well.
But now watch the unintended consequences coagulate. Cable, as business secretary, served as political arbiter of a deal vociferously opposed by the Telegraph Media Group, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the BBC: Rupert Murdoch's bid to own all of BSkyB. Some in this unlikely coalition, the Guardian like the Observer, are moved by ideology as well as self-interest. Media plurality is "a profound matter about what sort of democracy we imagine for ourselves", wrote the Guardian on Thursday. Too much Murdoch, Ed. But there's survival as well as sanctity in this mix.
A prospective Sky subscription scheme incorporating Murdoch newspaper website subs or even print subscriptions on top is a competition-shivering prospect. And, more realistically, a joint rate card or selling pitch for satellite TV ads and newspaper ads seems a real frightener. Thus the effort to get the Sky deal blocked has been high-stakes stuff.
So why set up a sting against the secretary of state who has primary responsibility for taking this decision? Why try to rile, humiliate and possibly ruin him, when you ought to be the keenest supporter he's got?
Even asking the question shows how deep into cock-up country this expedition strayed from the very start. It didn't make any kind of sense for the Telegraph to target Cable. And when he blathered on about "declaring war on Murdoch" it made absolutely no commercial sense to print it.
Let's not wallow too deep in purity here. The money that pays reporters' salaries has to come from somewhere. This Telegraph campaign must have been a slow builder nights of tramping along snowy paths to constituency HQs for the reporters, days of transcripts and chat. Weeks, then, for managements and lawyers to be consulted and give a view.
Maybe, as the Telegraph claims, the decision to leave "declaring war" on Murdoch out of the Cable interview on day one merely showed the wisdom of keeping a good story back for day two. But someone leaked it to the BBC anyway, and shouts of "defecation" (in its colloquial short form) echoed loud around the Telegraph newsroom. Result: Cable is off the deal-deciding case. Jeremy Hunt, a minister who has never shown much taste for warfare with Wapping, is arbiter now. And the odds on Murdoch approval have shortened drastically.
The EU waved through the deal last week. News Corporation's lawyers will be watching like hawks for any twinge of continuing bias. Thank you and goodnight, Mr Barclay, shot in both feet for Christmas. Who thought this was a bright investigation in the first place? Who believed that embarrassing bits of it could be kept under wraps for two minutes (let alone eternity)? It's going to be a difficult few months down at Victoria HQ.
There are, however, factors that argue for calm rather than plank-walking. One is that the Telegraph's MPs' expenses investigation is a plus that can't be wiped swiftly away. If you're going to turn over big stones and show bravery under fire, you're bound to take risks and risks, by definition, involve losses as well as wins. Another is that Cable's denunciation of Murdoch was, by any standards, a headline-making tale with constant publicity attached.
The third source of cheer is political, as well as problematical. The business secretary wasn't going to "decide" the Sky question in some rhetorical war situation, any more than he was "going to bring the coalition down" if defied. He was, after formal advice from Ofcom, either going to refer the takeover for months of Competition Commission scrutiny or not. He couldn't turn over the advisers. He needed to go with the flow, not brag.
Hunt is in that same box now. He can't be seen to truncate due process. Indeed, he may feel obliged to stretch it out.
Are there conditions that might make the Telegraph coalition smile more benignly? Perhaps. A pledge not to bundle TV and newspaper subscriptions would help. So would a pledge not to sell ads for Sky and print in any sweetened package.
That won't pacify a Guardian alarmed by Murdoch's lobbying power, nor a BBC anxious in case a swill of satellite profit buys up yet more sport and blockbusting movies: but Mark Thompson, remember, has lately taken James Murdoch's side over starting TV news channels with attitude, not neutrality legally enforced. The BBC and News International are dancing as well as sparring partners. Terms and conditions do conceivably apply.
Are those terms and conditions more difficult to secure because some stingers got stung? Not particularly: it's just that the pressure to be fair and transparent comes from a different direction. The end result, perhaps many months later, may be much the same. And will there then be awful consequences for media freedoms completely intended? Nobody truly knows: but, looking at last week's Telegraph performance, you can probably bank on frail human interventions cocking it up somehow.