I have been watching the emerging news about the activities of the News of the Screws with some horror. While I knew that the journalists and editors working for Murdoch generally and the tabloid rags specifically were quite lacking in ethics, I hadn’t quite realised the despicability to which they had descended, typified by the emergence of allegations that they had hacked into the mailbox of missing (later discovered murdered) Milly Dowler and even deleted messages on her voicemail because it was full and they wanted to hear more frantic messages from her family and friends worried sick that something serious had happened to the poor girl, as it turned out it had.

My sinking feeling is further deepened by the fact that this utterly egregious lack of any sense of proportion on behalf of the so-called journalists at this now blessedly defunct rag (though as many have commented the gap in the market it leaves will no doubt be filled by another publication from Murdoch’s odious empire soon enough) will serve to chill the borderline cases where the public interest truly is served by obtaining information via technically illegitimate means. The Telegraph’s exposure of MP’s expenses fiddles is a good case in point. The expenses information they obtained and published were clearly gained in violation of both law and civil service regulations. However, the public interest (not the prurient attntion of the public but the over-riding benefit of lack of corruption in elected representatives) should in such cases be allowed to over-ride the technical illegality of the act involved in gaining the information. Sort of a reverse “fruit of the poisoned tree” argument – where the resulting information should be disclosed in the broader public benefit, any illegaility in obtaining it should be forgiven in the balance. Without such balance in the laws despotism and tyranny can flourish under the cover of the chilling effects of personal liability for obtaining information illicitly. This requires those with the possibility to exert this defence to act with care and strong ethics in only pursuing information truly in the public interest, for example health information about a minister might be fair game if those health problems are being concealed and potentially impact their ability to do an important job. Health information about their baby children is NOT fair game – no matter how much I disagree with Gordon Brown on policies and whether he was a suitable candidate for Prime Minister, I feel great sympathy for what he had to go through with the press intrusion into the health of his young children.

I agree with others that it is time that the Press Complaints Commission was given a proper statutory basis and independence from the industry it is supposed to regulate, but also from the government whose interests may diverge from that of the public at large in individual cases. A difficult but not impossible task.