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The press: To legislate or not to legislate?

Any statutory regulation would ignore a fundamental problem with our prurient society

Let us agree on one thing at the outset: that phone hacking, obtaining information under false pretences and the subverting of public officials are wrong. Let us also agree that, belatedly, these matters are being dealt with, prosecutions are proceeding, more will follow, and large payments have been made to many of the wronged.

Since the law has belatedly sprung to life, and the arrogance of News International considerably withered, what outrages would a press law address? The routine culture of exaggeration and lack of context at papers using big headlines and short, simplistic words? The sneakiness which makes reporters pose as doctors when a Russell Harty is lying mortally ill in hospital? The snideness of the Daily Mail? The red-tops' appetite for celebrity low-life? If so, we have a problem.

Every so often, I'm invited to speak about newspapers to a lay audience. When my talk has dribbled to a conclusion, a hand will thrust into the air and, in the guise of asking a question, its owner will make an impassioned speech about the evils of the press, how it intrudes into people's privacy, is concerned only with celebrity and scandal, is an offence to decency, etc. The questioner will conclude with how deplorable this all is, and sit down to a storm of applause from the rest of the hall.

I don't know if they are expecting me to defend those ploughing the earthier ends of the news fields, but I don't. Instead, I ask a question: how many of you here read The Sun, Daily Mirror or Daily Star? Not a hand will rise – the same response I've been getting to that inquiry for more than 30 years. These papers sell in their millions, and yet I've never met anyone who publicly admits to buying one. And so we have this puzzle: vast numbers of people want the press regulated and its journalists to behave like Care Bears, while an even larger number buy the very papers that cause most offence.

Ah, comes the riposte, that was before people realised how these stories were obtained. Really? Has a horrified public recoiled from the titles most associated with the kinds of journalism people object to and turned to The Guardian, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday? No. The latest readership figures show that The Sun, Mail, Mirror, Star, and Daily Express are read, on an average day, by 17,210,000 people. The Guardian and The Independent are read by 1,568,000. This is a recurring pattern. Every outbreak of popular revulsion at unappetising aspects of the mass-market press – be it stories obtained by cheque-book journalism, wired-up honeytraps, transcripts of intimacies between royals and their lovers or by deliberate exaggeration – has led to not the slightest alteration in the papers people buy.

So what is going on here? Is it reader hypocrisy – condemning in public the very material lapped up in private? Did those who, 15 years ago, most lamented the constant media surveillance of Princess Diana include some of the people who, up to the moment of her death, devoured every detail, every photograph, every last bit of fetishised coverage? It's more than possible.

And pandering to this public curiosity – as opposed to the public interest – goes a long way to explaining the culture in the offending newsrooms. What sells are salacious, and often intrusive, stories; getting these, and the detail that makes them spicy (often regurgitated in the quality papers a day or so later), requires behaviour from journalists which, although legal, is not especially edifying. And readers, who wouldn't be happy if they knew the over-persistence required to get such material, are more than happy to consume the end result. What we have then is a conspiracy of moral lapses – by reporter and reader. Tougher self-regulation would be welcome, but ultimately the only real sanction is a change in public taste.

Yet, for me, there remains a suspicion that something else is at work among those issuing the shrillest calls for statutory regulation. And this is that their real, visceral aversion is not to what is done to serve mass culture, but to mass culture itself. In that respect, they are but a modernised version of the elitist voices that opposed press freedom and mass literacy in the first place.