Will the press ever be able to restore public confidence?

The trials of Andy Coulson and Rolf Harris reveal a celebrity-obsessed culture in which we are all complicit

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A couple of days ago, on the hottest day of the year so far, two men set off for court in the knowledge that they were going to spend the night in prison. Andy Coulson headed for the Old Bailey while Rolf Harris's destination was Southwark Crown Court, where dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews waited in blazing sunshine to record the latest chapter in these very public disgraces. Seldom has the criminal justice system had to deal with two such high-profile defendants on the same day, involving behaviour which is very different – criminal intrusion in one case, sexual offences in the other – but over-steps important boundaries in a civilised society.

Apart from an accident of timing, what links these two cases is power. In any society, there is always a danger that institutions or individuals will acquire too much, and the criminal justice system is a last resort when other checks and balances have failed. Harris's power derived from his celebrity, which he ruthlessly exploited to get access to girls as young as seven. Coulson's came with his position as editor of one of the country's biggest-selling newspapers, the News of the World. Even though he left the paper under a cloud, his power and connections were so important that he was able to get a job as David Cameron's director of communications and accompany him into Downing Street.

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In a situation where ironies abound, two are striking. First, as the judge who sentenced Coulson pointed out, the NOTW's fearless seekers after truth failed to subject their own conduct to even the most cursory scrutiny. Second, the paper's hypocritical attitude to celebrity – obsessive, censorious and fawning by turns – encouraged an atmosphere in which a favoured few believed they were beyond the law. It was clear long before the phone hacking scandal broke that the NoW was going after easy targets; under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, who has been cleared of any knowledge of hacking, it published the names and photographs of men who had been convicted of abusing children. But it did not publish a squeak about Harris, the TV presenter Stuart Hall (now in prison after being convicted of a series of sex attacks on girls as young as nine) or indeed Jimmy Savile, who counted Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales among his friends. In that sense, the paper wielded the power of a playground bully, ready to retreat as soon as a bigger boy faced it down.

Both these trials provide an opportunity to think about values. The tabloid obsession with celebrity and private life has had dire outcomes, not just for victims of intrusion but for the reputation of the press. Right now it could hardly be lower, a fact reflected in Richard Bean's mordant farce Great Britain, which opened on London's South Bank last week. Bean's characters, many of whom work on a popular paper ironically called The Free Press, are a caricature but close enough to reality to draw knowing laughs from the audience. What is at stake in the aftermath of the hacking scandal isn't the freedom of the press, but the urgent necessity to restore confidence in journalism, the police and politicians.

Ordinary people don't like the closeness between powerful editors and politicians, a relationship I have compared to that between mafia bosses and restaurant owners who pay them protection money. In the past, readers could claim they didn't know about some of the underhand methods mass circulation papers used to get stories. Now they do, whether it's using shady private detectives or bullying celebrities and grieving relatives into talking to them against their will. If readers go on buying papers with this knowledge, they have to ask themselves about their own role in the ethical failures of the industry. We are not merely passive consumers of the culture we live in, and it is hypocritical to consume sensational stories about famous people and then complain about celebrity culture.

What is also clear is that if vulnerable people are to be protected from the excesses of a ferocious, commercially-driven newspaper culture, there has to be a proper system of redress. We've never had that in this country, where repeated scandals have resulted in the press inventing new names for regulators which don't do their job. The latest incarnation is the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is so far from complying with the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson as to feel like powerful editors sticking up two fingers at his inquiry. Victims of intrusion are willing to accept self-regulation, but only if there is a system of independent audit to ensure that the regulator actually does its job.

On Friday evening, as I watched Great Britain from the packed stalls at the National Theatre, I couldn't help reflecting that Coulson and two of his former colleagues were spending their first night in prison. I don't take any pleasure in seeing journalists go to jail, but the fact that the criminal justice system has had to intervene in the affairs of a national newspaper is a signal of how bad things had become.

The phone hacking scandal has become part of our national conversation. More trials are to come, and last week's sentences are far the end of the matter. Politicians, journalists, police and the public need to think about the connections which brought it about, and how to ensure that in future we don't just pay lip service to the values we all profess to believe in.

Joan Smith is executive director of 'Hacked Off'

politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

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