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Leading article: The press must not be cowed

Revelations of widespread phone hacking have landed aspects of British journalism in the dock. A gallery of accusers, from Peter Mandelson to Andrew Neil, have rushed to condemn what took place. But is this pillorying totally justified?

It would seem some newspapers, probably the majority, have occasionally used unethical methods to gain information. It would also appear that some of this was in pursuit of stories that were not genuinely in the public interest.

Such behaviour should not be defended, nor excused. Yet some perspective is needed. The outrage expressed by some of the politicians in this affair is out of proportion to the scale of the alleged breaches of privacy. There is also some score-settling going on. Many of the parliamentarians lining up to kick the press are extracting their revenge for what they see as their unfair treatment by the media, most noteably during the recent expenses scandal.

Others are extracting partisan advantage out or the affair by demanding the resignation of Andy Coulson, a former editor implicated in the abuses who is now head of communications for David Cameron. We also need to recognise that some politicians have an agenda that goes beyond ensuring that journalists stay firmly within the law. There are elements in Westminster who believe that the press needs to be cut down to size.

This affair should not become an excuse for curbing the freedom of the media to investigate public figures. Many areas of public life in Britain remain shrouded in secrecy. Despite the passing of the Freedom of Information Act, our right to access information on how we are governed is still limited. Moreover we are moving the wrong way. A privacy law is being constructed by stealth in the courts. And, while politicians hyperventilate about press intrusion, the state is accruing greater powers to pry into the private lives of ordinary people.

Many people in positions of power would much prefer a supine and cowed media. But that would not make our democracy healthier. Nor would it do anything for the cause of privacy. We should ignore the hysteria and remember that, although a free press can be a blunt tool, it remains far preferable to any of the alternatives.