With all these enquiries into strange practices at RTE and hacking at News International, you would think that the subject of ethics in journalism had always been a matter of lively discussion. But you would be wrong.
Indeed, try as I might, I am unable to recall a single conversation I have had with any good journalist in which ethics, as such, was a central feature -- the good ones have an instinct for these things which is far too subtle and sophisticated to be hacked out in the form of a code.
So if there is a Code of Ethics out there, usually they have no idea what it contains, and they have absolutely no interest in finding out.
Indeed they are highly suspicious of this whole ethics business, as it tends to attract those who have never been much good themselves at anything, but who enjoy the sound of their own voices on radio panels, making high-toned noises about "declining standards in the media".
And inherent in all that noise is a desire to appear respectable, to be well regarded in polite company. Which to the good journalist is a very unwelcome development -- since when are journalists meant to be respectable and well regarded by such people?
But it goes deeper than that, beyond the instinctive rejection of the obvious bullshit.
These people who like to hear themselves talking
about ethics are the enemies of journalism. Some of them end up teaching media studies to young people who would probably get a better understanding of the essence of good journalism in almost any other place on earth -- one thinks of the Observer under David Astor hiring a retired lion tamer as perhaps the ideal, but anywhere is good if you can avoid these characters with their terrible inability or unwillingness to grasp the basic principles of the trade, to see things as they are, to get beyond the cant.
For example, hardly any of the media scandals of recent times are about ethics at all. There is no Code of Ethics, or indeed any official code of practice, which covers a situation in which you are accusing a man of some sexual offence and he offers to do a paternity test, and you refuse it.
You can't teach that, you can't learn anything from it.
And the London Independent didn't really need to send the columnist Johann Hari to some American college of journalism for a spot of ethical re-education, in order to establish that it is never a good idea to create an alias in order to tamper with the Wikipedia entries of people you don't like. And by the way, when you're writing up an interview with someone, you can't use words they said to somebody else five years ago as if they said them to you yesterday.
No, you don't need to over-complicate these things, it would surely be enough to place a large sign in the office saying something like this: TRY NOT TO F**K EVERYTHING UP.
The Leveson Inquiry has been grappling with issues which seem to go beyond the realm of mere foolishness, but which are still pretty easy to resolve. Do you hack into the phone messages of a missing girl? Answer: No.
Like most questions allegedly relating to ethics, this is really no more than a matter of common decency. And common decency is another of those things that can't be codified, that you either understand instinctively, or not at all.
But in relation to all that business with phones, there is another question: do you hack into the voicemail of a man who is suspected of selling arms to Robert Mugabe? The answer to that, I believe, without a moment's hesitation, is Yes.
So where does this leave your crude talk about "guidelines"? How can you say that The Only Way Is Ethics?
Likewise, there was a warm welcome for the recent Sunday Times story about fundraisers for the Tory Party selling access to David Cameron, a story that was acquired through secret filming, through pretending to be someone else, and then double-crossing the "victim" of this subterfuge by putting it all in the paper.
All in all, a fine day's work. But again, a tricky one for the ethics police.
Clearly if these undesirable practices have a desirable result for society in general, they are not to be condemned, but to be encouraged. As to what is a desirable result, and who is to be the judge of it, again these are matters of instinct, not something that can be taught by our professors of journalism.
Though of course, they will do their best. And what else can they do?
Personally, if I were asked to address a class of journalism students, I would leave these matters of ethics to one aside and I would say just three things: 1) you shouldn't be here; 2) you shouldn't be here; 3) you shouldn't be here.
And there's a fourth thing: why are you still here?