In Praise of a Free Press

22/03/2013 19:09 GMT | Updated 22/05/2013 10:12 BST

Do you regard it as acceptable for a newspaper to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for stolen information relating to the financial affairs of people in the public eye?

How about publishing information obtained from police officers who are not officially entitled to make it available and which is vehemently denied by the parties directly involved?

If you answered No to the first question, that would mean we'd never have learned about MPs' fraudulent expenses claims. (The Daily Telegraph paid a reported £300,000 for a CD containing the MPs' expenses information, which had been either stolen or improperly copied.)

If you answered No to the second question, it would mean we'd never have learned about industrial-scale phone-hacking at the News of the World and elsewhere. (The Guardian got its information from police, lawyers and others, speaking anonymously and unattributably.)

Were we entitled to know about expenses-fiddling MPs and phone-hacking journalists? Of course we were. Is that what we expect from a free press? Of course it is.

It looks this weekend as if the bizarre late-night press regulation deal stitched up by a handful of politicians and a bunch of Hacked Off campaigners in the small hours of last Monday morning has been virtually strangled at birth. For which, I suggest, we should all be truly thankful.

It was the wrong answer to the wrong question. I agree with Simon Jenkins, who wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday: "A few innocent victims of press unfairness may gain redress. But the cheering across town this week is from the rich, the celebrated and the powerful, with parliamentarians in the van."

Of course, I feel for the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies, Charlotte Church, and many, many others who have been shamefully and disgracefully treated by newspapers. (For some reason, I'm afraid I have close to zero sympathy with Hugh Grant.)

But it is never a good idea to allow victims to determine retribution. That's why court-rooms replaced lynch mobs. And frankly, we should be very worried indeed when we see politicians and celebrities united in media-hate and thirsting for legislative revenge.

There is, in fact, a very easy way to ensure that journalists don't break the law: get the police to do the job they're paid to do, rather than taking back-handers, sometimes several thousands of pounds, from reporters looking for a good story. It really is as simple as that.

I have always believed that one of the principal functions of a free press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That is not easily done if the comfortable are in charge of deciding what can and cannot be printed.

Journalists can be compared to undertakers or sewer-cleaners: it may not be pleasant to watch them at work, but the work that they do is essential for the survival of a healthy society.

Ask yourself this question: who will reveal corruption, incompetence, criminality and injustice, if the press is no longer free to operate without fear? And yes, I know, that for every justified media campaign I can point to, you can point to others that clearly cross the line of acceptability.

But can you have one without the other? Can you somehow have a regulated press, free to expose wrong-doing when it needs to be exposed, but prevented from doing harm to innocent citizens who find themselves trapped in the glare of publicity through no fault of their own? If you can, I have yet to see a way of achieving it.

Many years ago, I met a woman whose son had been labelled in a mass-market tabloid headline as "the worst brat in Britain". He was a child with severe learning and behavioural difficulties, for whom being pilloried on the breakfast tables of millions was a torment he certainly didn't need.

I have also met some of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, who would probably still be languishing in prison, having been wrongly convicted of a series of IRA pub bombings in 1974, had it not been for the work of journalists determined to prove that the police and the courts had fingered the wrong men.

Yes, of course you can file this under 'S', for special pleading. Journalists will always argue for a free press because -- of course -- it's in our interests to do so. But it is also in yours.

A New York Times editorial put it well yesterday: "The kind of press regulations proposed by British politicians would do more harm than good because an unfettered press is essential to democracy. It is worth keeping in mind that journalists at newspapers like the Guardian and The Times, not the police, first brought to light the scope and extent of hacking by British tabloids. It would be perverse if regulations enacted in response to this scandal ended up stifling the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that brought it to light in the first place."

In Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day, a character says: "I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." Perhaps you feel the same way.

Trouble is, it's a package deal.