The claims that precipitated yesterday's emergency debate made it inevitable that passions in the Commons would run high. The allegation that 13-year-old Milly Dowler's mobile phone had been hacked for the News of the World in the days after she went missing was as distressing as it was repellent. With others added to the list of mooted victims almost by the hour – the families of the murdered Soham girls, the parents of Sarah Payne, victims of the London bombings six years ago today – the scale and degeneracy of the practice was assuming quite different proportions.
Until then, the phone-hacking affair had penetrated the public consciousness largely as a well-paid risk for the rich and famous. Now, it had become a heinous violation of privacy to which anyone might fall victim, at a time when they were at their lowest and most vulnerable. All of which explained why shock, outrage and disgust were on full display yesterday, with MPs' fury only slightly assuaged by the prime minister's promise of at least one, and possibly two, inquiries. David Cameron's insistence that police investigations should be concluded first, prompted cries of derision – not unreasonably, given the stuttering and half-hearted nature of police activity in this area hitherto.
But there was also a highly distasteful and even dangerous undercurrent to MPs' indignation: the inference that the whole of journalism, and the press in particular, was defined by such reprehensible practices. That slur – and it is a slur – needs to be scotched before it becomes a new verity, drawing to itself all manner of calls for tougher regulation and restrictions. There was more than a sense, too, that some MPs were seeking vengeance for the exposure of the expenses scandal.
It is probably not reasonable to believe that phone hacking and other unethical and illegal practices were restricted either to the News of the World or to the News Corp stable. The chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, John Whittingdale, spread the net somewhat wider in yesterday's debate. But he also allowed that, just as the expenses scandal had tainted all MPs, even though many had not abused the system, so many journalists were appalled about the activities of some members of their profession.
We were, and we are. But it is also crucial to defend the honour of this and other newspapers, especially at a time when the press as a whole is coming under acute financial pressure. Most journalists and most newspapers well know the difference between ethical and unethical, legal and illegal, right and wrong. Most stay on the right side of the line.
Britain has a long tradition of highly competitive, lively and responsible newspapers. It is a tradition which attracts envy from many parts of the world and has fostered a press culture with an admirable reputation for speaking truth to power. At its best, British investigative reporting is second to none, with a clear sense of the public interest, quite properly, to the fore. Let's not forget that it was not only the MPs' expenses scandal that newspapers exposed, but the phone hacking whose ramifications are being minutely chronicled in some newspapers, including this one, even as others did their utmost to keep it under wraps.
Freedom and responsibility in the British media turn bad only when cut-throat ambition spawns illegality and when journalists or proprietors neglect their responsibility to keep a distance from power. What the phone-hacking scandal has shown, as it has evolved, is that – for all the scum that sticks to some journalism – Britain still has a free, independent and ethical press, and it remains as essential to the nation's wellbeing as ever.