Lord Justice Leveson has warned newspapers not to victimise witnesses who have spoken out against press intrusion in front of his tribunal. Although I shall naturally respect his Lordship's instructions, perhaps I might be allowed a few reflections about Alastair Campbell, who appeared last week. For when Tony Blair's former spin doctor climbs sententiously into the pulpit, it is time for us to count the prayer books.
Mr Campbell described parts of the press as "frankly putrid". No doubt he is right. But I would take the accusation more seriously if it did not come from him. More than any person in government, Mr Campbell nourished the red tops. He urged Tony Blair to genuflect in front of Rupert Murdoch, and The Sun subsequently became part of the project. Before the Iraq war it was an uncritical cheerleader for Bush and Blair, and afterwards dutifully suppressed bad news from Baghdad. Mr Campbell was so close to the paper that he leaked it the date of the 2001 general election before No 10 had bothered to inform the Queen.
This is not the time to dwell on Mr Campbell's tampering with the evidence behind the Labour government's crucial September 2002 dossier that made the case for war, or on his second, misleading dossier of February 2003, which he covertly plagiarised from sources already in the public arena. All we need to know is that Mr Campbell was a red-top journalist through and through, working for the Daily Mirror in its most rumbustious years, and idolising its corrupt owner, Robert Maxwell, who makes Rupert Murdoch look like a saint.
Why should such a man be allowed to vilify the press without his own highly dubious role being mentioned? For me his appearance marked the low-point of this so far one-sided inquiry. We have had a stream of celebrities making accusations against the press, some of them deeply shaming to journalists, others unsubstantiated. Lawyers, journalists and others have also lined up to demonise the tabloids, sometimes making perfectly justifiable points. There will be more of the same this week, with so far unnamed "media academics" being given the chance on Thursday to comment in a way that will probably be hostile to the principle of self-regulation.
In fact, I can't think of anyone who has yet been permitted to make an even-handed but sympathetic critique of the press. Before the hearings began, we had an eloquent defence of the tabloids from Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, but he is inevitably parti pris. Outside the inquiry, we have had a stirring argument in favour of self-regulation from the Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, but he lacks detailed knowledge of the workings of the press. What we have not yet had - amid all the relentless rubbishing of the tabloids - is a disinterested, expert, proportionate voice.
Will we ever? I am told that in many months the fourth part of the hearings called "The Future" may allow neutral witnesses to do the kind of thing I am talking about. Let's hope people will still be prepared to listen. I would like to nominate as my star disinterested witness Peter Preston, for 20 years editor of The Guardian and now a media columnist on The Observer. Though he has never worked for a tabloid, he does not yearn for their extinction. He is a cussed, fair and incorruptible man, whose evidence and recommendations I would trust and accept. Will the likes of him ever get a hearing?
A no-holds-barred memoir from Lord Black
Conrad Black, the former proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, has written a defiantly unrepentant and thrillingly indiscreet account of his tribulations called A Matter of Principle. For what I presume may be legal reasons, the book is not on sale in this country, but it can easily be obtained from Amazon.
Lord Black's main purpose is to establish his innocence, and he portrays himself as "the victim, not the author of crimes", though he does concede moral fault. In his eyes, the chief culprit was his business partner, David Radler. The arguments in favour of his own innocence are involved, and readers will have to make up their own minds. My faith in his accuracy was shaken by several serious factual bloomers. For example, he states that the Berry family - from whom he bought The Daily Telegraph in 1986 - acquired the paper "in late Victorian times", though in fact they took it over in 1928. Surely he should have known this.
But the book is mesmerising for its gossipy revelations (he claims the Barclay brothers, current owners of the Telegraph titles, have built a replica of the dining room of Mark's Club in their Channel Island redoubt) and its devastating character assassinations. Former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings is described as "dashing and irrepressible but with a short concentration span and even shorter temper, at times an almost Monty Python-like awkwardness, and a hotchpotch of dissonant, half-formed opinions". Sir Max is treated lightly in comparison with his real enemies. Lord Black evidently feels he has little to lose, and the result is a Fleet Street cracker.
The rival suitors for Lady Mary Crawley
Who will win the hand of Lady Mary Crawley? I am not talking about the choice between her cousin Matthew Crawley, heir to Downton Abbey and the earldom, and the slimy press baron, Sir Richard Carlisle. I mean the much more passionate and hard fought contest between The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
Some will think the Telegraph has Lady Mary in the bag. It is socially more eligible, despite some recent vulgarities. Its broadsheet format enables it to display large and prominent pictures of its beloved, though it sometimes allows its affections to veer in the direction of her no-less-attractive sister, Lady Sybil. But last week the paper embraced Lady Mary again on its front page, assuring readers that she would offer a "Christmas teaser". You bet she will. She's that kinda gal.
However, I wouldn't write off the Mail, which the week before last ran a very fetching picture of her on its front page. Its tabloid shape is obviously a disadvantage, offering Lady Mary less space than she is accustomed to. On the other hand, the paper doesn't like losing. It may, in the end, simply have her on the front page more often than its rival because it has more staying power, and the Telegraph could be forced to seek comfort in the arms of Lady Sybil.
As in all these romances, there is a dark horse. I wouldn't put it beyond The Times to slip in between these two desperate suitors, and claim Lady Mary at the 11th hour. It is admittedly also hampered by its tabloid shape. But it is supposedly the "top people's paper" and, if it made its intentions clear, who could be sure that Lady Mary would not succumb?