JOURNALISM isn't complicated.

People who construct large theories to explain "the media" tend to overlook this detail. Underpinning everything there are two brief, uncomplicated, perennial questions. Is it true? Can we prove it?

Those inquiries are informed, of course, by numerous other arguments when two or more journalists gather. Is it a truth worth knowing? Is it a truth that's anyone's business? Would the effort required to establish the truth be better spent on another inquiry entirely?

Loading article content

That kind of bickering – or rather its absence – went to the heart of the phone hacking scandal. The disgrace was not that laws were broken, but that they were broken for the sake of trivia and trash, and because those involved didn't give a damn about the harm done.

Lord Leveson, about to deliver his report, might want to ponder an idea, nevertheless, if there's still time. What would the public have felt about the hackers if they had turned their attention to one wizened, cigar-sucking DJ and "national treasure"? The demand for press regulation might have been a little less vociferous.

Then again, any tabloid adventurer who had decided to pursue Jimmy Savile would have been operating on the basis of mere rumour, and chasing – or so it seemed – idle gossip. Lord Leveson, patently, is dismayed by that sort of thing. He and his political cheerleaders don't believe in that version of journalism.

So let's say it's the 1980s. On one night a piece of gossip emerges that does the rounds, from London to Edinburgh and beyond, with a speed that would give wildfire a bad name. There are lots of "reliable" (but unnamed) sources attached. A prominent Conservative (whose name is not McAlpine) is at the heart of a scandal involving children. The fire is fuelled when Downing Street begins to issue warnings of unprecedented severity. Touch this tale, runs the message, and there will be hell to pay.

Nothing came of it. These stories are the small change of political gossip at the nastier end of the trade. Plenty of people asked if the allegation was true. Plenty tried and failed to prove it. So why was Newsnight's approach to abuse in Welsh children's homes so different?

The BBC has been putting out a cloud of verbiage involving "mistakes", changes of command, editorial boundaries, and "leadership". The rest of British journalism, if we can speak of such a thing, finds the entire affair incomprehensible. Newsnight failed to take steps that a teenager on a local paper would take automatically.

It doesn't even deserve to be called a cock-up. A conspiracy makes no sense. Given the compelling need to establish if certain allegations were true, and if they could be proved, the BBC's flagship TV current affairs programme decided not to bother to ask. Those paid from the licence fee poll tax had not even insisted that anything involving the word "paedophile", from anywhere within the corporation, should be scrutinised at every level. Our two simple questions would have done.

It is easy enough to find outrageous libels on the great, grubby internet. Certain politicians are mentioned routinely. As with Savile, we might one day be asking ourselves why the gossip wasn't taken more seriously. But anyone concerned for the BBC's future can take another tack. If you can put any rubbish on the net, and cause any sort of nonsense to trend on Twitter, what does that do to the habit of asking basic journalistic questions? The Newsnight farce provides one depressing answer.

Several experienced people seem to have assumed that because Alistair McAlpine's name was "out there" some kind of fact had been established. Supposedly it removed the need, bizarrely, even to ask the single alleged victim to identify a man from his photograph. Then the net was called in evidence for viewers keen to conduct their own "investigations".

So once again the BBC is wounded. The injury will not be terminal, not publicly. Politicians are not so foolish as to be seen to exploit a disaster that is proceeding, for them, satisfactorily. But those who mutter about the corporation, who are incredulous at its loss of elementary competence, still need to be careful of what they wish for.

Around the world, printed media are struggling with new technology. This is hardly a revelation. The argument that journalism has to be paid for is not as persuasive as once it was. Add the belief that all "news" can be found for free, that all reporters are politically-tainted, phone-hacking crooks, and you have an existential crisis. Then take out the BBC. What remains?

Ironically enough, it resembles the kind of on-line universe in which the libelling of anyone – pick a party, pick an enemy, pick a name – becomes the currency of argument. What you say or read doesn't have to be true – that's the least of your concerns – just as long as it is seen or read, is "popular", and is believed.

Most journalists know lurid tales involving famous folk. As a young arts writer taken up with pop, I heard about Savile from time to time. I made the assumption that a man in his position might pursue young women, but would never be so reckless and revolting as to brutalise children. I was naive. Was I also naive about one famous Tory back in the 1980s?

What you can't do is launch your suspicions and prejudices into the ether. Or rather, you can do exactly that. Society holds together in the chaos, for better or ill, when someone is still asking the basic questions with some authority, when there is a functioning BBC or a working press. Lose those and you lose every yardstick, loved or loathed.

Lord Leveson, it is rumoured, thinks that the ability to ask a couple of questions honestly needs to be regulated by statute. The impulse is understandable. But do you really want a world in which those questions can only be asked under the state's licence, and in which the only remaining alternative is the illusory freedom of a Twitter account?