It has to be accepted these are dark days for UK tabloid press - and, by implication, worrying times for the media in general.
The revelation that the News of the World hacked into the mobile telephone of murder victim Milly Dowler while she was still missing, compromising police investigations into her disappearance, brings this practice to a new low. The public was not overly concerned at allegations telephones of so-called celebrities were tapped, but it is clear that the practice of hacking at this newspaper spiralled beyond any tolerable limit.
What happened in this case is now the subject of a police investigation. This is not simply a matter of ethics, but of potential criminal proceedings. And, given the number of allegations of phone tapping already levelled at the newspaper, who knows what new revelations may yet emerge. Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, publisher of the News of the World, was editor when Milly Dowler's phone was hacked and, while she is said to have the support of her boss Rupert Murdock, she has questions to answer. If she didn't know about the hacking - as she says - then why not? And if she did, then her position is certainly untenable.
Critics of the media, and the press in particular, will use this scandal as an excuse to demand even more stringent controls on journalism. That must not be allowed to happen. Laws passed because of relatively isolated instances of abuse are generally bad laws. Journalists have an entirely proper and necessary task, often shining lights into areas which others would prefer to keep dark. The pursuit of wrong-doing, or any investigative journalism, can give rise to a conflict of interests, but journalists should not be forbidden to pursue legitimate public interest stories.
In Northern Ireland, for example, the media plays an important role in calling politicians to account in the absence of a meaningful opposition to the Executive. However, in the case of the News of the World, if the hacking claims are substantiated, then it is proper that the full weight of the law is brought to bear on those guilty of overstepping the boundaries.