Just two years ago journalists on my former newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, were feted for the extraordinary series of exposés about the abuse of MPs’ expenses. The reverberations were felt around the world with film crews beating a path to my door from as far afield as China and New Zealand. There were many casualties. Michael Martin was the first Speaker to be driven from office in more than three hundred and fifty years because of his attempt to cover up the scandal. Three former MPs and two Peers went to prison. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were repaid to the public purse.

The expenses affair underlined the importance of the press in calling the executive to account. But now, because of the disgraceful conduct of a handful of journalists on Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, we journalists are once again languishing with estate agents and traffic wardens in league tables of public contempt. As for the politicians, they condemn us for wielding too much power and influence. The same complaint comes from footballers hiding behind expensive injunctions intended to protect their lucrative commercial endorsements from kiss-and-tell stories from their mistresses. I accept that often sleazy stories about footballers having mistresses are not in the public interest; but the public is undoubtedly interested in reading them, hence the huge sales of tabloids. If they are denied the right to serve up what they do best their sales will fall and they will not have the resources to pursue undercover investigations into Indian test match fixing or Sarah Ferguson trying to sell access to Prince Andrew for five hundred thousand pounds. Who can say those stories were not in the public interest? But all this is being threatened by the witch-hunt against newspapers by MPs demanding statutory regulations.

After more than twenty years reporting on parliament I have a golden rule: when MPs quiver with righteous moral indignation it is time to run for cover. In their unrestrained glee at the difficulties of Rupert Murdochthe Labour Party, in particular, is overreacting. Of course, the fury and disgust at the hacking of the phone of Milly Dowler will be shared by all civilised people. Yet this does not justify the calculated intervention of Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, who is a key adviser of Ed Miliband (a potential Prime Minister). Newspapers, he argued, should be ‘subject to a charter’ which ‘requires balance’.

Kinnock, who had a terrible time with Fleet Street when he was Labour leader, clearly believes in the old saying: ‘Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.’ The phone-hacking scandal is ghastly. So too is the scale of the fawning by political leaders at the altar of Murdoch’s chief disciple, Rebekah Brooks. However, the unseemly grovelling says more about Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron than it does Brooks. Most people can see through the MPs’ bluster. They know that a free press is a powerful force for good. They know we have the best newspapers in the world, which is why we still sell around nine million every day. I am proud, not embarrassed, by the way we wield our influence.

When I was growing up it was the Sunday Times which exposed the thalidomide scandal. In my time as a journalist this was a newspaper which exposed the fraudulent mortgage application of Peter Mandelson. I had a hand in disclosing how the newly-elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had accepted a million pounds for the Labour Party, with another million in the post, from Bernie Eccelestone. This bought exemption for tobacco from the ban on advertising at sporting events. If Blair had forged that deal later in his premiership he too would have been forced to go.

Many more public figures will hijack the hacking affair as a chance to restrict newspapers’ operations severely. We must oppose them. It is worth remembering that Richard Nixon never knew about, let alone ordered, the Watergate burglary. Yet by covering up for the aides who organised it, he had to resign in disgrace from the Presidency. The Washington Post could not have exposed him if it had been shackled by restrictive regulations. There are already enough of those in Britain. Even though Parliament has never voted in favour of a privacy law the judges have created one through the Human Rights Act.

As for Rupert Murdoch, The Times had been shut down by union militants for eighteen months before he took it over. It still runs at a loss. It was Murdoch, with some help from Mrs Thatcher, who smashed the unions because they were holding Fleet Street to ransom. The Independent, which is leading the way – along with The Guardian – over the hacking revelations, would never have opened if Murdoch had not triumphed over outdated union power and practices. It is worth pondering that when the Murdoch press switched from Labour to the Tories on the day Gordon Brown was due to make his Labour Party conference speech in September 2009, David Cameron was eighteen points ahead in the polls. Yet, at the election in May 2010, the Conservatives failed to win a majority, polling only a few percentage points more than William Hague in 2001. So much for the expression ‘It was The Sun what won it’.

The power of the press was always over-inflated by the likes of Alastair Campbell, who flew his boss half way round the world to secure Murdoch’s endorsement. There was, of course, revulsion against the hacking of the phones of murder victims and fallen soldiers. But this has not, despite what Kinnock and his protégé, Ed Miliband, seem to believe, turned into a clamour for an end to an unconstrained press.

Every censorious government uses the same argument. It does not want to repress free opinion but eradicate muck-raking misinformation. To this the surest response is the one offered by J. S. Mill: ‘We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.’

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