The British media must beware of being led in "a race to the gutter" by unethical newspapers who have "shown an utter and unacceptable disregard" for the law, the owner of The Independent warned last night.
Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of Independent Print Ltd, spoke of his dismay at the tactics used by some journalists who were putting at risk the freedom of the press. "If we don't act responsibly and ethically, then we have only ourselves to blame. We will be doing ourselves and ultimately society a terrible wrong. A free press is as much a part of our democracy as free elections, the Magna Carta and the unwritten Constitution."
Addressing an audience at Independent Voices 5x15 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Mr Lebedev was taking part in a discussion on free speech that also featured Max Mosley, the former Formula One chief, Charlotte Harris, a leading media lawyer, the actress Ruby Wax and Johann Hari, columnist on The Independent.
In 2008 Mr Mosley won a court victory over the News of the World for invasion of privacy, but he failed to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that newspapers should be forced to warn people before they exposed their private lives.
Mr Mosley, who made a strident attack on the influence over British society of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp empire, said the revelation that the News of the World had hacked the phone of an abducted schoolgirl would alert the public to the serious nature of tabloid excesses. "Members of the public for the first time see where illegality, criminal activity, leads if it's allowed to go unchecked."
Hari spoke on the threat to freedom of speech from religious fundamentalists. "No one has the right to be ringfenced from offence," he said.
Wax revealed details of her own treatment by the media, including reporting of her mental health problems, and said she hoped the subject would lose its taboo status. "Our day will come," she said. She added that in a society where people were less likely to talk across the garden fence or at church, people would use social media and the tabloid press to feed their craving for gossip.
Ms Harris has represented victims of phone hacking, but she also spoke last night of clients who found themselves being blackmailed with threats that their secrets would be revealed to the media. She spoke of the difficulties experienced in obtaining legal injunctions to prevent publication.
Mr Lebedev complained that in privacy cases judges were "rewriting the law themselves". He said that superinjunctions were "increasingly impractical" in an era of online communication. "I sometimes wonder if the only way to bring this country's judges into the 21st century is to pass a law forcing all of them to join Facebook and Twitter," he said.
Although Mr Lebedev had grown up in a "dark, closed society" in Russia, he had not been prepared for the behaviour displayed by some British newspapers. "I am shocked by the sheer extent of the phone hacking, under car tracking and rubbish sifting of celebrities in this country," he said. "I am equally disturbed by the alleged phone tapping, bank account blagging and email hacking of high-level terrorist informers, intelligence officers, members of the Royal Family, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a Deputy Prime Minister, a Home Secretary, a Trade Secretary, a Culture Secretary and perhaps even a sitting Prime Minister."