Paul Vallely: Why I am proud to be a British journalist

The Leveson inquiry is revealing much that is inexcusable - including the PM's behaviour - but it is not a fair reflection of our press

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I got a message from a 94-year-old nun last week. She was so sorry, she said, that I was a journalist, but she was praying for me. It has not been a good week to be a scribbler. The Leveson inquiry has offered up a long catalogue of newspaper infamy. So it may seem odd to have responded that, this week of all weeks, I still feel proud to be a journalist.

There has been much to bear. The low point was, of course, the heart-rending cry "She's alive!" from the mother of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who had been given false hope when messages from the teenager's mobile phone were deleted by some hacking journalist. The mother's eyes sparked feverishly as she recounted the moment to the inquiry.

But there was also the brittle exhaustion of Kate McCann as the inquiry heard example after example of newspapers' casual disregard for the truth after her three-year-old daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal. Among the calumnies was one that the parents had sold their daughter into slavery to pay off family debts.

On it went. A 15-year-old boy took his own life after cavalier press lies that his murdered sister had been a bully. The business adviser of the supermodel Elle Macpherson went into a psychiatric facility after being accused of leaking to the press when the model's phone was actually being hacked. The actress Sienna Miller accused her own mother of betrayal when the true culprits were reporters working for Rupert Murdoch.

Yet there was something uncomfortable about it in another sense. It was hard to feel the same sense of associative shame over the footballer's wife Sheryl Gascoigne, who appeared on I'm a Celebrity, wrote a biography, and sold her wedding pictures to Hello! – and now was bemoaning invasion of privacy.

The comedian Steve Coogan seemed slightly out of proportion with his complaint: "This guy sat outside my house! It's just a risible, deplorable profession." Sitting outside someone's house is not quite in the same league as the mendacity, intimidation, spite, blackmail and theft that Lord Justice Leveson heard of elsewhere. And there was the odour of sanctimony about the lament of Max Mosley that an exposé of his sado-masochistic orgies pushed his son to suicide, as if his own behaviour played no part in the fatal shame and embarrassment.

So it was interesting to hear on Friday that a leading QC, Paul McBride, had pronounced the coverage of Leveson "hysterical". There were far better things, he said, to be doing with public money and police time just now than investigating contraventions of the Telecommunications Act. Then the father of one of those killed in London's 7/7 bombings, Graham Foulkes, a magistrate whose phone was hacked, decided not to offer evidence to Leveson claiming the inquiry had been "hijacked by so-called celebrities using it for their own purposes".

A number of counter-cultural thoughts occur to me. For a start, I met that old nun 25 years ago, in Ethiopia where I was reporting on the terrible famine. What people such as me wrote then undoubtedly spurred efforts which saved thousands of lives. Despite all Murdoch's people splashing about in their foul swamp of wickedness and criminality, the state of British journalism is generally sound and even envied around the world. Some mistakes are inevitable when you work as fast as journalists do. But its investigative reach and tenacity remain impressive.

The corrupted culture of the News of the World was exposed through 18 months of dogged work by a handful of assiduous journalists on The Guardian and The Independent papers. Without them, the Murdoch empire would have sailed on unscathed and David Cameron would almost certainly have allowed it to take full control of BSkyB. Other parties should not escape whipping; relationships between New Labour and News International also had the feel of a cosy cabal.

For decades, British politicians have feared that Murdoch's top-selling red-tops could swing elections against them, and some feared exposure or ridicule of some embarrassing aspect of their private lives. Politicians and proprietors have repeatedly done one another favours; indeed it may be the News of the World's last boon from beyond the grave to have provoked such an endless cavalcade of complaining celebrities that everyone forgets that the real scandal here – the unseemly relationship between that paper's former editor Andy Coulson and the Cameron government for which he was a key election adviser.

The smoke of celebrity indignation is nicely obscuring that just now, though Coogan's testimony was uncomfortable for the Prime Minister's former head of communications, who has yet to be brought to account. But, by and large, Mr Cameron must be pleased at the success of his cynical ploy to cast the Leveson brief as wide as possible to distract attention from the Conservatives' Coulson cancer.

It is also easy to forget that the much-deplored tabloid tradition of paying the police and others for information is not always a violation of the public interest. The flood of evidence about MPs fiddling millions of pounds of expenses came from a CD of detailed spreadsheets of parliamentary expense claims for which the Telegraph gave money to a public official.

Those on the receiving end of journalism often do not appreciate the attention. Reporting can often be institutionalised rudeness. As editor of The Sunday Times, Andrew Neil was wont to repeat the old adage: news is something someone, somewhere, does not want to see printed.

Even so there is something specious about the argument that the price of preserving the freedom of the press is that quality papers have to defend the right of the gutter press to shovel shit. It is bogus to suggest that you can't have one without the other.

As Hugh Grant said in his brave and generally understated testimony to Leveson: "A free press is the cornerstone of democracy. That is a certainty. But what I see in this country are two presses. One which does exactly what a good press should – informing the public, holding a mirror up to society, holding power to account. And then, hiding under the same umbrella, a second press that has been allowed to become something toxic – a press that has enfeebled and disgraced our democracy; bribing police, emasculating parliament and enjoying the competitive sycophancy of five successive governments". He should write his own scripts more often.

The challenge for Leveson is to find a form of press regulation that is not political – politicians are the last people who should have any control over journalists – but which has effective statutory teeth. It must do more to protect privacy, but it must defend the duty of the press to investigate and expose. It should not be beyond his wit, as a member of a judiciary which itself constitutes an admirable model of an institution that is fiercely independent and yet wields the authority of the state.

In an age of increased accountability it is wrong to expect that the press should somehow be exempted from scrutiny or from being held to account. Threats to press freedoms have historically been political in nature. Today it is the press itself that is its own worst enemy.

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