For decades the editors and proprietors of tabloid newspapers - in particular - have been expected to purvey gossip to readers who abhor gossips; to reveal private behaviour nicely; to dig the dirt while keeping their fingernails and their buyers' consciences meticulously clean.
Now this very British compact has been destroyed. The press must finally choose: it can offer the people the promise and fact of better journalistic behaviour, or the stories they most love to read - but not both. To choose wrongly would be to court that most feared retribution, a privacy law.
British journalism has been drinking in David Mellor's ``last chance saloon'' for so many years now that one might have expected it to be far too power-drunk to give a coherent answer. And yet it has: after the Press Complaints Commission's suggested reforms to its code, unveiled yesterday, it has chosen righteousness.
We may hang our heads, perhaps, that it has been necessary to swear ourselves a new code which is mostly mere human decency writ official. Assuming that editors and proprietors agree (I think they all will), then we abjure the habits of grabbing pictures of people in churches, of pursuing children (or buying dirty stories from them), of using pictures obtained by harassment, and of showing little restraint when interviewing or photographing people in paroxysms of grief.
And we needed a new rulebook to agree that? It says something about the pressures of the media market that it has been necessary to draft this Geneva Convention of the circulation war in the first place.
There are two points readers need to know. First, that the proposed new code really is tougher. By that I mean that some of the stories hypocritical readers most want to enjoy, the ``real dirt'' on the famous and glamorous, will no longer appear. A public appetite for juicy gossip will be starved. Some papers may sell fewer copies as a result. Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC, and his colleagues, have taken fairly drastic action.
The second is that the idea of financial sanctions to back up the tougher code has been dropped - strangely, to my mind. Lord Wakeham thought it would require so many months of extra haggling in the industry that it wasn't worth doing. But I suspect that the code will be held to anyway. Why? Because the industry is so terrified of full-blown privacy legislation that proprietors will not applaud editors who raise sales by breaking the agreement. They will sack them instead.
So all is tickety-boo? Not quite. We are pro-privacy in the sense that prurience and voyeurism should take a few steps back in newspapers. The harassment and ``doorstepping'' of people in distress has been sad at times, disgusting at other times. But there are enough dangerous grey areas in the proposed new code for any freedom-conscious journalist or reader to wince.
Last week, we at The Independent heard a rumour that John Major and Chris Patten were discussing the future of the Tory party while closeted at Tristan Garel-Jones's villa in Spain. We phoned them and we got pictures from a local restaurant of the trio, along with their assorted spouses.
We published the lot. The politicians say it was a holiday, innocent of plotting. We remain unconvinced. Should readers of The Independent know about that little episode, or not? I think you should. But it is possible that Lord Wakeham may disagree - though he tells me he would probably consider the story legitimate, and therefore the photographs too, if they were taken with permission.
But what if we had snatched them? The proposed new PCC code would ban photographs taken without permission in restaurants - and I suppose a Spanish bar counts as a restaurant - unless there is an ``overriding public interest''. Hmm. Public interest, fine. But who defines ``overriding''? In the case just given, our story was politically interesting. But it was a straw-in-the-wind story, not a blow-your-House-down story. So who decides?
Here are some credible examples of the kinds of problem the PCC will soon have to wrestle with. The revised code implies that places where people can reasonably expect privacy should be extended to include, for instance, beaches, gyms, even moorland. Well, I think politicians and princesses have the right to sweat and grunt in a gym without having a telephoto lens trained on their heaving selves.
But what about a chat show host who strips to his boxer shorts one cold December day on Brighton beach, before dancing along the pebbles roaring ``Waltzing Matilda''? He cannot reasonably claim to be acting in private. And what of a disgraced politician who, as a scandal breaks, walks with his wife for 10 miles across a hillside for a picnic - only to find a photographer and reporter waiting for them on a dry-stone wall. Should they be treated as being in public or private? Are they being harassed? Is the public interest proportionate to the harassment?
These decisions will be made in the first instance by editors. But they will be second-guessed by the PCC. My only concern is that we end up with a situation where a clubby private committee, with lots of powerful chums in high places in both politics and journalism, is able to deem which political stories are of ``overriding'' importance and which are embarrassing, second-order stories, to be kept away from public sight.
We would then have a charter for establishment cover-ups. Politicians, wishing to have an easier time, would collude with powerful proprietors, who wish to keep away a privacy law, and ensure that life became more comfortable for the powerful. Whereas the people who most need protection are the less powerful people who are caught up from time to time in voyeuristic frenzies.
If the PCC started to slide in that direction, then I for one would prefer a new statutory deal, including a Law of Privacy - which is coming, anyway, via incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights - plus a reform of our excessive libel laws and the long-promised Freedom of Information Act. We'd take our chances in open court.
Probably, everything will be fine. The PCC may let the embarrassing political stories keep coming, shrugging off hissed complaints from Cabinet ministers and clubland murmurings from the great ones of the country. Probably, this is a good day for British public life. If so, hooray. But there are a few phrases and grey areas here that make me just a little uneasy. Paranoia? Yet again - probably. But if there is one thing that matters more in journalism than a love of wide-eyed gossip, it is slit-eyed suspicion.