When journalists start to preach about media ethics, it is usually time to start counting the spoons. Such were my thoughts last Wednesday morning as my esteemed colleague Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade gave listeners to Radio Four's Today programme the benefit of his views about the News of the World's alleged phone tapping. Roy was extremely exercised, and called the newspaper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, "a rogue proprietor". To some this may seem a harsh way of describing Tony Blair's great friend and possible future employer.
Now would not be the time to rake up the Prof's own distant lapse when, as editor of the Daily Mirror, he allowed its owner Robert Maxwell to fix a "spot the ball" competition so that no one could win it. Nor would it be helpful to dwell on Roy's own six-year stint as an assistant editor on The Sun, which happened to be owned by that very same "rogue proprietor", Rupert Murdoch. We all change, and this very fact should make us optimistic about the human condition.
Roy is, of course, largely right. We should not talk about the case of Clive Goodman, the News of the World's royal correspondent who has been charged with hacking into the mobile phone messages of members of the royal household. The courts will decide whether or not he has broken the law. If it were to turn out that he did not, that would put Roy's "rogue proprietor" remark in an interesting light. Were Mr Murdoch the suing type, which he isn't, he might think of engaging the services of my learned friends.
Setting Mr Goodman aside, we can discuss the rights and wrongs of hacking into people's mobile phone messages. It appears that this practice is quite widespread on tabloid newspapers, in particular the red-tops, and even more particularly the Sunday red-tops. It may not even be unknown on one or two of the so-called qualities. Some say that such practices have declined as editorial budgets are trimmed because of the advertising recession; others claim that technological developments are simply making them more easily detectable than they were. I must have lived a sheltered life, but I am told that, in addition to hacking, journalists use the services of private investigators and agents to obtain bank account details, home addresses and other personal information.
All this snooping is no doubt highly reprehensible. None of us wants our mobile phone messages hacked into or our bank statements peered at - not Prince William, not Mr Goodman, not Roy and certainly not Mr Murdoch, who evidently believes in his own privacy but not in anyone else's. It is against the law, and also infringes the Press Complaints Commission code of practice. The kind of royal story which the News of the World publishes is rarely obviously in the public interest. Indeed the "public interest" is often wheeled out as a defence by many newspapers to justify invading people's privacy.
And yet the matter is not completely cut and dried. Imagine that a respected quality newspaper which could still afford to employ investigative journalists believed that a leading politician - or even a newspaper editor - was taking backhanders from a multi-national company. Would such a paper be justified in paying an agent to obtain private bank statements? Most of us would probably say that it would, even though such an activity would be illegal. We can all imagine other hypothetical cases when snooping by journalists would seem defensible.
So the issues are not quite as straightforward as Roy might have us believe. Finding out important things is very difficult. Not many journalists are actually engaged in that activity. They opine or analyse or repeat gossip or write down what some PR company has told them. The few who are actually engaged in the business of unearthing information soon hit the brick wall of politicians and businessmen who only want you to know the nice things about them. What if you suspect there are some nasty things? Without some snooping we may never know about them.
Earlier this year, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, promised to get tough on "deliberate and cavalier" phone tappers, including journalists who get confidential details illegally. He said that his office had a list of 305 journalists who had obtained information about people using illegal methods. This is a surprisingly high number. One also wonders how Mr Thomas came by such a figure. Presumably the snoopers have somehow been snooped on by an organ of government, which is pretty alarming to those of us who value a free press. There is a danger in lumping all these journalists together, and in assuming that there can never be any justification for any of them to use such techniques.
All this brings me back to the News of the World. The paper has had an unhappy time recently: a court case involving three alleged terrorists, who had fallen victim to a sting by the "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood, collapsed, with the NoW being generally denounced; and the paper lost a libel action brought by Tommy Sheridan, the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, after it had alleged his involvement in all kinds of sexual shenanigans. Now Mr Goodman has been charged, and the paper faces further investigation. It has been suggested that the mobile phone messages of David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, and Victoria Beckham may also have been listened to by the paper. One little irony of all this is that the News of the World is normally hugger-mugger with the boys in blue, and even employs Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, as a columnist.
Let us hope that Mr Goodman, who has been suspended by the News of the World, is not hung out to dry by the paper's management. If irregularities have occurred, they will have involved money, and its editor, Andy Coulson, can hardly protest ignorance. Nor can Mr Murdoch escape responsibility. If it turns out that the paper has regularly been using illegal methods without any conceivable public interest defence, important heads will have to roll, though you can be sure that none of them will be Mr Murdoch's.
Few will shed many tears for the NoW if it is found to be guilty of such practices. But however vulgar, low and hypocritical the paper may be, we shouldn't forget that it does sometimes produce important scoops, such as the unveiling of poor David Blunkett's affair with Kimberly Fortier. And amid all the wailing and complaining that would inevitably follow a general indictment of the News of the World, we shouldn't lose sight of the truth that snooping by journalists can sometimes be justified.