I am not among those calling for the smelling salts following the Leveson revelations about British tabloid practices.
So the hacks hacked into mobile phones? So what's new already? What is new is the technology to do the hacking, but believe me, 'twas ever thus in the matter of intrusion into privacy, as I learnt during my initiation into the legendary institution of Fleet Street even in its glory days.
I don't think we even considered the word 'ethics'. The imperative was to 'get the story' at all costs. Reporters were given lessons in various ruses to work their way into the lives of those in the news. Should a tragedy occur, the trick was to get into the family home -- possibly through a window -- and steal a family photograph. I never actually got around to doing this myself, possibly because I was never an ace news reporter, but I was instructed in the tricks of the trade just the same. And instruction was sometimes done by example.
There was a reporter -- long gone to the great El Vino in the sky -- called Anne Sharpley who was upheld as the best news ace who had ever graced the pages of Lord Beaverbrook's papers. She had particularly distinguished herself when reporting Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965. Having got the story, she raced to a nearby phone booth to transmit her copy and, when her pencil-thin skirt was an encumbrance to speed, she just chucked it away. She reached the phone, read over her copy, and then vandalised the telephone so that the competition would be delayed an edition. Sharpley duly had an exclusive front-page splash, and was much admired for her enterprising tactics.
To any young woman journalist going abroad for a foreign story, Sharpley gave unvarying advice. "Always sleep with the Reuters man, doll." An overseas report would be checked against the leading news agency, Reuters, and if Reuters confirmed your exclusive from Erehwonistan, you'd have the front page. And you could always steal the Reuters man's information by sly pillow methods. Ethics? I think not!
Attitudes were unrelentingly tough. There was no sympathy whatsoever for whinging celebrities, or politicians who complained about press intrusion (we now know from the archives that Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan was obsessed with hatred for an intrusive press, while Harold Wilson, his Labour successor, was paranoid about it). There was one iron rule that applied to all whingers: "If you can't stand the heat, don't come into the kitchen." If you want a quiet life, go and make sheep dip in the Scottish Highlands.
Awful, wasn't it? Small wonder that even back in the 1930s, prime minister Stanley Baldwin had castigated the popular press with a memorable phrase: it had "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".
But Fleet Street laughed at such prissiness. Journalism was driven by the need to know, the need to find out something those in power didn't want you to know. You had to get hard-bitten and tough-skinned. Doctors grew hardened to the sight of diseased anatomies; soldiers got used to the brutalities of battle; lawyers made big bucks out of crime. Somebody has to do difficult but necessary jobs.
And in those days, the 'serious' newspapers didn't disparage the popular press (before the term 'tabloid' was coined). 'Dog doesn't eat dog' was one maxim: but the 'serious' press also understood that that they were parasitic on the popular papers. 'The Times' and the 'Manchester Guardian' would take up a story broken by 'the gutter press' -- just using small typefaces and duller headlines.
The modern inventor of the gossip column, the late Nigel Dempster, even claimed that in unveiling the peccadilloes of those in high places, he was a moral force. Adulterers and embezzlers would ask themselves: "What if I'm found out?"
The big thing that has changed is electronic technology. 'The News of the World' reporters were able to hack into mobiles, and some of their endeavours would have turned the stomach of even the most hardened of the old-style veterans: the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone really was revolting, cruelly tormenting her bereaved family.
But essentially there has always been that driving force to uncover inconvenient, and sometimes uncomfortable, facts, and it will always exist. Ethics committees may try to restrain the worst excesses and the powerful will always find ways to protect their privacy. And, of course, most of us would be horrified to be the prey to the media pack's hunting instinct -- brilliantly evoked in Stephen Frears's film 'The Queen', when we see the paparazzi in pursuit of Diana with terrifying purpose.
But the collaborating culprit for media misdemeanours is surely -- the public. It is the public who buy and read what has been discovered and uncovered, by fair means or foul, by hacking into electronic gadgets or by sleeping with the hapless Reuters man.