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With press freedom comes responsibility

IF you really want to look for an honest journalist, you might do worse than Paul McMullan, the former deputy features editor of the 'News of the World'.

An unlikely candidate, one must admit. Mr McMullan admits he himself was involved in unsavoury, even illegal, activities on behalf of the newspaper. The point is that, whatever his motives, he admits it.

He also tries to draw distinctions between newspaper activities which are unpleasant but defensible, and those which are not. It is a difficult and unpopular thing to do after the latest shocking revelations, but this is the moment when it is most important to try to get it right.

Several commentators have described the hacking into the phone of the missing girl Milly Dowler as a "tipping point." So it is, and so it should be, but who and what should be tipped remains as difficult as ever.

The difficulties are better illustrated, not by the NOTW scandal, but by the case being taken by the Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand. He is suing Mirror Group Newspapers for invasion of privacy over an article about an affair, for which the newspaper paid the woman involved £16,000.

The courts will decide on this case but we seem no nearer to creating a system where the excesses which arise from the public's desire to know certain things, and the media's commercial desire to tell them, can be balanced against the things the public ought to know and the media's duty to tell them.

The UK, like most countries, has had a clear code of practice for journalists for many years. Ireland recently acquired one. Nearly all of the practices revealed at the NOTW breach the UK code but only the law can actually enforce rules. However, a statutory code at that level of detail would be incompatible with a free press.

Ireland may actually have taken a tiny step towards a solution. There is a hint in the new libel laws that adherence to the voluntary code of practice, or lack of it, might affect judgments and damages in libel cases. It is only a hint but perhaps, as privacy law evolves to match libel law, it might just show the way to match press freedom with a responsibility which has been so sadly lacking in many quarters.

Irish Independent