By Sunday Herald investigations editor Paul Hutcheon

I HAVE a friend who blames my trade for many of the problems the UK has faced in recent years. The invasion of Iraq? That was down to “the media” beating the drums of war. Public-sector cuts? Again, “the media” is culpable because it eggs on the Coalition and presents no alternative. My acquaintance makes allowances for politicians and probably even estate agents, but not journalists. We are the Bad Guys.

But every time he rails against “the media” I feel like hitting him. Not simply because the sentiment is wrong, but because the phrase is so far-reaching it is meaningless. “The media”, as far as I am aware, spans broadcasting and print journalism, Fox News and the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Guardian, left and right. And then there are blogs and Twitter. “The media” is a tree with many branches, not a stump.

My friend’s generalised view was echoed last week as the News of the World teetered and then folded, brought down by the tsunami of phone-hacking allegations. A leader in The Times, written the day before the News of the World’s collapse, described the revelations as a “watershed moment for British journalism”. Prime Minister David Cameron then said that one of the two public inquiries would focus on “the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press”. Now Ann McKechin, Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary, has claimed that “the integrity of the Scottish press is at stake”.

Let’s get some perspective. As a journalist for nearly a decade, I have never hacked anybody’s phone, far less asked a third party to do it on my behalf. I fell into my current job to pursue my twin obsessions of checking how public money is spent and examining the conduct of people in high places.

Most of my working day is mundane and tedious: it involves sifting through public records; developing new contacts; and coming up against the inevitable stonewalling of lawyers, accountants and snake-like press officers. My work has never involved intercepting phone messages, sending “trojan horse” viruses to access the contents of someone’s hard drive, or buying people’s medical records.

I would also be astonished if any reporter in the Herald and Times group had ever considered phone hacking as an option. Even if a solitary journalist had entertained such a thought, his or her prospects of getting the company to pick up the tab for hiring a private investigator would be less than zero. And yet, according to The Times, in terms no doubt endorsed by “media” sceptics, journalism stands at a crossroads. We are all in this together.

The truth is that there is no ethics crisis in the press, far less “the media”. Any problem that exists relates to the News of the World (now deceased) and a small number of reporters on other papers who peddle the toxic brew of commercial prurience and mawkishness that poses as journalism. It is also, lest we forget, a cocktail that is enthusiastically drunk by millions of readers every week.

This is not to downplay the appalling behaviour of the journalists or executives involved. News International was clearly not being truthful when it insisted that its flagrant breaches of privacy were confined to former royal editor Clive Goodman. I also find it difficult to believe that mobiles were only hacked at the News of the World. A more likely scenario is that hacking was a deeply embedded part of the culture of several newsdesks, sanctioned or approved by senior staff.

The allegations that proved fatal for the News of the World were impossible to defend. Interfering with the phones of the 7/7 bombing victims is outrageous, as is “tapping” the bereaved relatives of Britain’s war dead. But deleting the voicemail messages of a teenager who had been abducted and then murdered, in the process giving false hope to her parents, is an act of unbelievable cruelty.

It was, of course, not simply those practices which cause concern ... it is the influence of News International at the very highest levels of power in this country. From Thatcher to Blair, News International held successive governments in thrall. Its relationship with the Metropolitan Police was even more corrosive. Add to this poisonous mix a culture of newsroom bullying, as well as the practice of paying victims of phone hacking for their silence, and you have a gangster firm holding a gun to the head of authorities that are meant to serve the public.

The payback has just begun. Not only has Murdoch had to sacrifice his bestselling newspaper, but some of the former paper’s senior journalists face prison. A clear-out of News International executives, including chief executive and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, looks inevitable, while the company’s share price is set to crash closer to the floor.

But amid all the controversy we shouldn’t forget that journalism has shone a light into many dark areas those in power would have preferred to keep hidden from the public gaze. And whether it be Watergate, the Sunday Times’s unmasking of Soviet spy Kim Philby, or the investigation that led to Jeffrey Archer’s conviction for perjury, reporters rarely stumble across the truth by asking polite questions of press officers or pleading for information.

Organisations employ an expensive artillery of advisers to ensure that only a partial version of events reaches the public domain. Sometimes newspapers have to bend the rules to uncover the truth.

In the 1990s, the Guardian used its journalistic skill to investigate links between former Tory Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken and Saudi businessmen. Many blanks were drawn and the probe took time and patience. One of the ways the Guardian tried to get the information it required was when the paper’s then editor, Peter Preston, sent a “cod fax” to Mohamed al Fayed’s Ritz Hotel. The false document was written on House of Commons notepaper, purportedly from Aitken, and was intended to glean information about who had paid one of the Conservative member’s hotel bills. As a result, Parliament’s privileges committee found the Guardian and Preston guilty of “unwise and improper conduct”.

Yet, in retrospect, Preston’s behaviour was entirely justified. Although he said it had been a “stupid and discourteous thing to have done”, the clandestine means were outweighed by the ends: another part of the jigsaw was found to nail a corrupt politician. The subterfuge was inspired. Aitken was jailed for perjury in 1999.

In 2009, an unnamed figure involved in the processing of MPs’ allowances was so infuriated by many of the claims that he ensured a disc containing members’ expenses forms found its way to the Daily Telegraph. The action, which earned the mole a six-figure sum, was a clear breach of data-protection laws. There were also calls for the police to hunt the leaker. But despite the technical transgression, I would put my arm around this hero if I was ever lucky enough to meet him.

The back-door tactics of journalism have direct relevance to the phone-hacking scandal. Imagine Richard Nixon had been a 21st-century president and Watergate had broken in the noughties. Would we be up in arms if a newspaper had tapped the phones of Nixon aides John Ehrlichman or Bob Haldeman, if the purpose was to substantiate serious wrongdoing? Would we have condemned the press for pursuing a similar course of action, as a last resort, to prove that Aitken had told lies in court.

Context is everything. An individual’s right to privacy is diminished if they have broken the law and embarked on a cover-up. By contrast, stepping over the line in pursuit of gossip, prurience or misery is contemptible. It is not what News of the World journalists did that I find ultimately offensive, but why they did it. Their purpose did not remotely justify their actions.

However, don’t believe the spin from Westminster that the phone-hacking scandal is a black day for the press, when in fact the reverse is true. It was not politicians, civil servants or police officers who exposed the News of the World’s criminality, but investigative journalists at the Guardian. The only reason that the Murdoch flagship has folded is due to the doggedness of veteran digger Nick Davies and his colleagues. The Met’s closeness to the News of the World came to light solely because of the Guardian’s probing.

In this respect, the unmasking of the News of the World can be seen as a triumph for proper journalism. At its core, reporting must be about challenging vested interests and exposing practices that are damaging to the public. Shedding light on crooks who work in newspapers is a logical extension of that function.

Contrast the determined actions of the Guardian with the opportunism of Labour politicians who are now, belatedly, outraged by News International’s “dark arts”. From MP Tom Watson, to former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, dozens of members of the Labour family are now calling for resignations and inquiries into the News of the World. Yet, it is difficult to recall instances of senior Labour figures howling about the tabloid’s news-gathering techniques when the Murdoch stable supported New Labour.

Former prime minister Tony Blair, in the dying days of his premiership, made one attempt at attacking the power of the press. In a 2007 speech, which on the surface made some valid points, he likened elements of the media to a “feral beast”, and blasted outlets for merging news with commentary.

But pause and think about which newspaper Blair singled out for criticism that day. Did he attack the News of the World, or lay in to the Daily Mail? Did he condemn The Sun, or excoriate the Evening Standard? No, he aimed his barbs at The Independent, a liberal-minded and low-circulation paper that would not cause him too much trouble for his backchat.

The Metropolitan police force’s role has been even worse than the politicians’. The duty of law enforcement is to detect crime without fear or favour. Not only did senior police give News of the World reporters and executives a free pass, but officers routinely accepted hospitality from the same newspaper.

In this context, simply pinning blame for the fiasco on “the press” or “the media” is unfair. It was not an absence of laws or codes of conduct that allowed the News of the World to hack at whim; instead, fault lies with the police officers who failed to do their jobs. The behaviour that has repulsed the nation is already illegal; the real disgrace is that the law was not enforced.

Tougher “regulations” could also be counter-productive. If Cameron’s inquiry backs sweeping recommendations to restrict the powers of newspapers, such provisions would sit alongside draconian libel laws and the culture of superinjunctions that have been used to keep embarrassing details out of the newspapers.

Criminals should be jailed, but a free press is a crucial watchdog that has ultimately shone a light on to its own industry.

The powerful and corrupt would be happy for it to lose its teeth. That must not be allowed to happen.