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We must not lose press freedom over hacking

I have been away for two weeks. To a rainswept field in Suffolk (thanks for the memories Latitude Festival) and to the rainswept vineyards of Bergerac (thanks for the hangovers). So I have been a semi-detached observer of events in these isles in recent days.

As an editor, that has been frustrating given that the maelstrom currently visiting these shores is focused on my own industry. But I still feel qualified to offer up the following opinion. The UK has gone stark staring mad. Raving bonkers. Lost all sense of perspective. Has taken leave of its senses to an extent we might all wake up soon with vague recollection of past events and the beginnings of a blush at the memory.

Here's what I think happened. A newspaper systematically conducted itself in a heinous and grotesque manner to get exclusives. It broke laws that already exist. A group of arrogant execs and hacks thought they had the powers in the land by the, well you know what, and could do what they like. It has been proved spectacularly that they can't. The newspaper has closed with hundreds losing their jobs. Those are, I believe, the central facts of whatever "gate" we are calling the scandal today.

Now I am not naive. It has been a great story. In between rain showers and trips I too watched every minute of the father and son double act before the select committee and Wendy's stunning Crouching Tiger attack on the foam pie thrower of old London town with mouth agape. To see Rupe like that was to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the palace and find out the Wizard really was an old duffer with a weak grip on the levers.

But I need to check something with you to ensure I haven't lost the plot.

Did I really see the Prime Minister say he wanted a full inquiry into why press self regulation failed over the News of the World case when he and the might of MI5 couldn't uncover his own former press secretary's part in the panto?

Did I really watch Hugh Grant, that supporter of working girls' rights to practice their "skills" in the public arena, become a champion of the oppressed before you could say "here's the latest movie how about a free puff for it in your columns"?

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I'm sure I saw Steve Coogan, a man whose recent outing on the screen saw him playing a rough approximation of himself as a skirt-chasing ego-obsessed celeb, pop up to put the boot in. All right if you're doing the revealing rather than being exposed eh Steve?

Now help me with this one. Did I really see the legendary hack Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, beam down from Washington to Newsnight and opine that this was a turning point for the "English speaking world"? I think I even saw anchorman Gavin Esler on the same BBC show talking hysterically about epoch-defining moments. Boy has revenge been sweet for Auntie on this one. Kapow! Take that Murdoch for all the grief you've given us.

And did I really see a foam-flecked rabid John Prescott filling every TV screen with incoherent rage? That'll be he of the most iron-gripped, press-controlling government in history will it? Satire, as someone said after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace fresh from his Vietnamese adventures, just died. I do not for a minute dispute that journalism is rightly in the dock at this time. Poor Milly Dowler should be remembered by her family as the bright, pretty teenager she was not by the rest of us as an historical byword for corporate crime.

But I do caution against this all going too far. A rumbustious, pomposity-pricking, hypocrisy-exposing tabloid press is actually a hallmark of a society that refuses to be hidebound by convention and deferential to our betters. This episode is actually a good example of our democracy in action. Print journalism exposed wrongdoing, Parliament held those responsible to account and the legal system will do the rest.

Be assured many of those in the Greek Chorus presently bewailing the end of civilisation would legislate on privacy and, trust me, there is no definition that the lawyers could come up with that would not allow rogues, lovable and definitely not, to get away with hypocrisy, bluster, double dealing and criminality.

A caricature portrait of journalism as entirely populated with Hogarthian street brawlers, hacking and blackmailing when they're not either dining with the rozzers or slipping them a tenner is in danger of allowing in a Trojan Horse of regulation and laws which will benefit no-one.

Self regulation will have to be stiffened - of that there is no doubt. As a member of the Press Complaints Commission's Code Committee for six years I think we did a lot of good work, for example, on reporting of suicide and rules on payment to criminals but there was also too much self serving. The make-up of that committee will have to be changed to include more than just editors.

But here's another thought. Across the UK the number of press officers trying to control and sanitise the news you receive now outnumbers the numbers of journalists trying to bring you the unvarnished version.

Actually holding people to account and getting access to information is as hard as it has ever been. Funny haven't seen that being discussed much lately. We need plurality in our media. A press dominated by the Guardian's world view would be a dull old thing indeed just as it would be unsettling and shallow if the Sun held sway.

I actually detect, from my position away from the newsroom in the last two weeks, that the public gets much of this, unlike the revenge seeking MPs and celebs. Today, with memories of holiday receding rapidly I hope this is true so we can get back some balance. Not that you'd know it but the eurozone is in crisis, a new world recession threatens and our Jim is facing up to life without Sir Alan. As I say, it has been quite mad.


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