Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who has led the investigation into phone-hacking at the News of the World, apologised to the paper last night.
Davies, speaking at a debate at City University on 'How far should a reporter go? the lessons of the News of the World phone-hacking story' said: "I want to apologise to the News of the World. I feel sorry for them. It is a fluke and bad luck that this paper is subject to all this attention and that one journalist [Royal correspondent Clive Goodman] got caught.
"All of us can say that illegal activity was going on in most Fleet Street newsrooms. We know this as a fact." Davies said the Information Commissioner has even identified the Guardian's sister title, the Observer, as a culprit.
[Nick Davies in a post below makes clear that in referring to illegal activities, he means the use of private investigators and is not suggesting the Observer was hacking voicemail.]
He argued that changes to technology in the 1980s with access to mobile phone records plus the pressure exerted by newspapers struggling "to stay alive" and "endless bollockings" dished out by newsdesks had created an atmosphere in which reporters pushed the invasion of privacy.
Davies said: "They've no business in our bedrooms. They've gone too far. It's outrageous what they did to Max Mosley [the former Formula One president whose sex life was exposed by the News of the World ]. What business is it of the public what John Terry is up to in private. John Terry is only a role model as a central defender."
Ex-News of the World features editor Paul McMullan, speaking at the debate, admitted he had hacked phones and medical records to expose cocaine dealers. "If you want to get on in tabloid journalism you have to outsmart lawyers," he said.
He described phone-hacking as a "third-rate journalistic tool" that was "not so serious" with most messages on voicemail being of the "I'm down at Tesco's buying a pint of milk" category.
MediaGuardian commentator Roy Greenslade, in the somewhat awkward position of trying to speak up for the News of the World whose executives had declined to attend the debate because they were at the Tory party conference, argued that celebrities and footballers needed to be monitored because they were role models that influenced young people. But you felt his heart wasn't really in it.
However, he sounded far more sincere in defending Andy Coulson's position that when he was editor of the News of the World he had no knowledge that phone hacking was going on. Greenslade claimed: "The size of a newspaper nowadays is such that an editor cannot be involved in every story."
He said some of Goodman's stories had been quite trivial and Coulson would not necessarily know where they had come from. "People will say 'of course he knew' but it's feasible to me that you don't know the methodology of every story ."
Greenslade claimed that journalists in Fleet Street had been deploying "dark arts" and dodgy methods ever since he started in journalism 40 years ago.
Max Mosley, also speaking at the event, compared his "adventurous" sex life to that of the one he imagines for Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre - "the missionary position with the lights out and a few minutes of fumbling." Dacre has accused Mosley of "unimaginable depravity."
Mosley said: "The danger is we will lose a free press if the press is not responsible. We want major investigative journalism not tittle tattle." He claimed there was no justification for journalists to break the law in pursuit of a story.
However, this argument was dismissed as "too simplistic" by the former Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald. He said there were times when we should want journalists to break the law when investigating important stories in the public interest, like Watergate or the Thalidomide scandal.
None of the journalists were keen on Mosley's idea that prior notification of stories should become part of UK law, but Davies did float the idea of some kind of tribunal that could look at contentious stories before publication and decide if they should be published in the public interest.
As ever, the difficulty was coming up with a process that would protect privacy and still allow journalists to undertake investigations in the public interest.
Almost as difficult a conflict as that faced by Roy Greenslade, having to defend the News of the World in a public debate.
- Pics Jon Slattery. Top: Roy Greenslade (left); Nick Davies (right). Bottom: Paul McMullan (left), Max Mosley (right).