The News of the World, the largest selling newspaper in Britain, is in many ways a very traditional product. It provides smut and sleaze for readers of all social profiles, and it looks you in the eye and, with a perfectly straight face, tells you it is doing this in the public interest, in defence of a morality that those appearing in its columns tend not to follow.
The old joke about the NoW is that readers who would not be seen dead with it conceal it within a more respectable broadsheet, such as the one you are reading now, and then clandestinely enjoy the seedy stories served up each week by Rupert Murdoch's profitable scandal sheet. At present it is footballers' lives, and loves.
I should apologise, I suppose, for returning to these seedy subjects. It seems no time since we were discussing Becks and Rebeccs, but now the manager has made the ultimate gesture to his captain, by taking the spotlight on to himself. And in a useful word-saving gesture (columnists appreciate such things) Sven does not require us to use the word "alleged", as Becks did. Text messaging features prominently in both stories, which gives the NoW accounts just a flavour of the 21st century.
I am sure I don't need to go through the detail of Sven's shared affair with Faria Alam, who works at FA headquarters in Soho, and had a little foreplay (actually it went further than that) with the FA chief executive, Mark Palios, before moving on to the coach. As ever with these stories, the real issue is not the sex (both men are single, as is Faria), it's the lies. Or so it is claimed. For some extraordinary reason the FA chose to put out a statement denying Sven's office affair, having got the impression that there was no truth in the story. Most organisations manage to get by without issuing press statements denying or confirming office affairs.
Worse - presumably after a word with a passing referee - the FA then put out a statement rebutting their unnecessary earlier statement. And you're surprised we lose football matches? Sven, whose job may be on the line, though nobody is quite sure why, has made it very clear he had nothing to do with either statement.
Still, if we put on a serious face, like the NoW, we are shocked by the behaviour of football's finest, particularly when Sven is paid many millions a year (Palios doesn't do so badly) and is unable to take his team beyond the quarter-finals. He is a national figure, and he is now a laughing stock, at best.
The NoW was shocked by Sven's behaviour and decided that information about it should be brought to a wider audience - of eight million or so. The NoW is the modern equivalent of the stocks. It brings humiliation to sinners by placing the details of their behaviour before the public. It always has. Incredibly, in the years after the Second World War it was selling more than seven million copies a week. It concentrated then on raunchy court cases, particularly when there was a vicar in the dock.
Roy Greenslade, in his admirable newspaper history Press Gang, points to 1959 and the arrival of one Stafford Somerfield as editor. "The titillating court reports were all very well but he soon introduced two new forms of provocative content: kiss and tell memoirs and saucy investigations." He paid Diana Dors £35,000 for her interesting life story. Today Faria would receive rather more than that, but essentially, 45 years on, nothing has changed, as Eriksson and Palios have discovered.
But what about the hypocrisy rating? A colleague tells me that his English lecturer at Liverpool University in the Sixties, the late Professor Kenneth Muir, used to tell his students, "the Sunday papers are simply sin sugared with morality". That was a time when sin was more tightly defined. Now the NoW could argue that with the decline in public morality, the vastly reduced influence of the church and its reluctance to make moral judgements, falling standards in public life and the absence of well-behaved role models in sport and show business, only it exposes and condemns sin. Even the NoW wouldn't dare to put it quite like that, but it comes very close at times.
It is not alone in the hypocrisy league. The supposedly serious newspapers, even the BBC, have reported the Sven story. The Guardian last Thursday devoted a leader to the subject, saying loftily: "Only in Britain could an affair between an unmarried man and a secretary erupt into a job-threatening situation with reportedly £14m at stake." The Guardian had run the story across the top of the back page two days earlier. The BBC, which claims not to cover the private lives of public figures, reported the story on the basis that the FA was holding an investigation. And The Daily Telegraph carried a main op-ed piece, cleverly justifying its presence by explaining what it was not about, which required elaboration.
"Even insiders might be astonished that the FA could create a crisis about the private behaviour of three consenting adults," wrote Tom Bower. "Except that the FA's latest predicament has little to do with sex, or even lying. The real issue is ... the failure to eliminate the inherent corruption infecting the business."
So that's all right then. And I suppose we should be grateful to the NoW for ventilating the issue that is not sex. My worry is the damage all this may do to young people like Wayne Rooney.
¿ Bob Pinker, who retired yesterday from the Press Complaints Commission, has been with the PCC from the very beginning, 13 years ago. His role has been as crucial as any of those involved in press self-regulation in Britain. As privacy commissioner he had to deal with the thorny questions involving royalty and No 10. As the wisest head sitting on the smallest ego, he had to cope with the difficult moments, when the first chairman, Lord MacGregor, was unwell and when the second, Lord Wakeham, was caught up in the Enron scandal. He quietly took the helm for the 14-month interregnum between Wakeham and the present chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer. Professor Pinker - he retained his connections with the LSE throughout the PCC years - regularly talked to journalism students, promoting self-regulation. If the next generation of journalists think more about ethical issues than their predecessors, Bob Pinker should take his (large) share of the credit. But he wouldn't.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of SheffieldReuse content