HOW strange it was to hear Rupert Murdoch pay tribute to committed and courageous journalism.

For so long now the News Corporation chairman has found himself defending the indefensible when it comes to the dubious actions of some of his company's reporters. But the other day, he was talking about Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, who lost her life last week in the Syrian city of Homs doing a job she passionately believed in. "She put her life in danger on many occasions because she was driven by a determination that the misdeeds of tyrants and the suffering of the victims did not go unreported," insisted Murdoch, oblivious, it seems, to the obvious irony of his remarks.

Having worked alongside Marie Colvin in a number of war zones over many years and knowing her dry and often searing wit (not to mention her contempt for hypocrisy), how enjoyable it would have been – if only such things were possible – to hear her reaction to Murdoch's observations on this, the practice of journalism as a force for good.

Let me be clear about what I'm saying here. Not for a moment am I suggesting that Murdoch was not genuinely saddened and sincere in his tributes. But his words inevitably smacked of double standards, coming as they did from a man whose media organisation lies at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal and the accompanying fallout that has so besmirched journalism's reputation of late.

Surely even Murdoch himself, in his written statement on Colvin's death, must have given a passing thought to the incongruity of News International's accommodation of the cynical and mercenary reporters who hacked the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and his praise for journalists like Colvin, willing to pay the ultimate price to highlight the plight of innocent victims in hell-holes such as Homs?

If nothing else, the juxtaposition of Colvin's sacrifice with Murdoch's saccharin acknowledgement of her obvious talents revealed at one and the same time the values that underpin, as well as erode, today's journalism. Long before "Hackgate", journalists were, in the eyes of much of the general public, generally regarded as being about as worthy as something you would scrape off the sole of your shoe. Personally I've lost count of the times individuals have rolled their eyes and given me contemptuous looks on hearing that I was "one of those people". What especially sticks in the craw is that rarely, if ever, do they bother to ask what, if anything, I specifically do as a reporter. Simply being a journalist is enough to warrant their disdain.

For our profession's real critics, though, it was the phone-hacking scandal at the now defunct News of the World that gave them the ammunition and opportunity they have been waiting for to put the boot into the industry. The truth is, that their job was made all the easier by what has been an abject failure by many within the ranks of the press itself to say unequivocally to its own readers: hang on a minute, don't tar us all with the same brush.

One can only guess at the reason why so many journalists themselves, as well as their overseers and managers of many news media organisations, have failed to get this message across. It's almost as if the press has become conditioned to always defend its mistakes, rather than flagging up its successes and merits – of which there are many.

Within what is generally perceived as a desperately cynical profession, there remains little room for theorising about journalism, let alone anyone asking the question: why does journalism – especially good journalism – matter?

In the wake of the Hackgate scandal, of course, we have had the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. But somewhere along the way in all this washing of journalism's dirty laundry in public, we lost sight of the fact that not all reporters are prepared to ride roughshod over the people whose stories they cover, or indeed that journalism itself can be an extremely positive tool in the right hands.

In the hands of Marie Colvin and many others like her, the reporter's trade is something to be proud of, and it is high time more of us in this beleaguered industry had both the passion and guts to stand up and make that point. Colvin was part of what the BBC's veteran Middle East correspondent, Jim Muir, called a "transnational tribe", a reference to the globetrotting fraternity of international war correspondents who venture where others fear to tread in order to bear witness and bring home truths.

As Colvin herself put it, this means trying to find these truths in a "sandstorm of propaganda, when armies, tribes or terrorists clash". These truths, says Christiane Amanpour of American TV network ABC News, matter not least when the "cacophony of opinion and ideology threatens to drown out the space reserved for facts".

But Colvin's journalism achieved so much more than that. What it also did was shine a spotlight on, and give a voice to, people who have no voice. Much over the years has been said about the so-called "journalism of attachment", a phrase first coined by the genre's unofficial founder, Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent. It was back in the 1990s, during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, that Bell made the case for a journalism that "cares as well as knows".

Journalists, said Bell, had a new "moral obligation" to distinguish between "good" and "evil" in conflict zones, and if necessary to take sides. In other words, it was fine to become emotionally "attached" and nothing to be professionally afraid of.

Such thinking was not uncontroversial, with many warning that by emphasising attachment over neutrality, emotionalism over objectivity, there were dangers that the reporter would shift into the role of activist or campaigner rather than a one-step-removed dispassionate recorder of fact and truth.

Personally, I've often thought such fears were overblown and that a balance can be struck. The reporter who makes clear that he or she finds South African apartheid or the methods used by Israeli occupation forces in the Gaza Strip to be unacceptable and abhorrent is doing nothing more than their job.

While a "journalism of attachment" may in the 1990s have seemed new at the time, such attitudes have often provided the motivating factor behind some of the best-ever journalism. Think of Claude Cockburn's dispatches from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, John Pilger and Wilfred Burchett's coverage of the Vietnam conflict or the South African newspaper editor and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods, and you will understand what I mean.

The great US war correspondent of the Second World War, Martha Gellhorn, with whom Marie Colvin has often been compared, reflected her concern for civilians caught up in war in many of her dispatches. Like Gellhorn, Colvin believed in those people she was reporting on, and was fearless in questioning the corruption of power and authority that threatened the underdog. She rarely took no for an answer, even if it meant challenging the position of her own editors and proprietors.

Just a day before she died in Homs, Colvin, with typical passion and steely determination, said she was willing to "face the firing squad" of her own media organisation after posting a message on Facebook, on a war reporters' group page, urging colleagues to break her newspaper's online paywall and circulate her eyewitness reports from inside Homs.

Colvin herself, however, would have been the first to admit that news and truth are not always the same thing. As the American essayist Walter Lippmann once pointed out: "Newspapers do not try to keep an eye on all mankind; by its nature, news is selective, dependent on editors' as well as readers' tastes."

How right he was. Yes, good journalism matters, but it's also all too easy to get holier-than-thou about a profession that means many different things to different people, both readers and writers alike.

It's also too simple to draw some kind of straightforward intellectual demarcation between the so-called "quality press" and their "red-top" counterparts. In The Independent last year, veteran tabloid reporter Ros Wynne-Jones eloquently put the News of the World's dilemma into perspective when she wrote: "Lest we forget, it's not all been about innocent people and hapless celebrity love rats. With the demise of the News of the World there is one less public policeman – however bent – on the block."

She makes the valid point that, unprincipled as the News of the World's methods sometimes were, in some instances they were employed against unscrupulous people (including the corruption at the heart of football body Fifa and in the Pakistani cricket match-fixing scandal), even if at other times they were deployed to tell readers about Max Mosley's indiscretions.

It should never be forgotten that journalism is about entertainment as well as being investigative, analytical, campaigning, informative or the slaying of evil giants. Many of these roles can be complementary or overlapping.

Throughout history, war reporting like that undertaken by Marie Colvin and her colleagues has time and again been both illustrative and investigative. One need only think of the long-term search for answers that went into uncovering what happened in places like My Lai in Vietnam, Srebrenica in Bosnia or Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

That said, so much of journalism's potential for power in preventing abuses of power, or exposing immoral, unethical or illegal behaviour by individuals, armies, governments or companies, has been diluted by the struggle to survive in a diminishing marketplace and the clearly mistaken belief that "serious stuff" only turns readers off.

In making the case that good journalism matters, I'm always encouraged by the fact that, despite the suspicion and prejudice which exists towards our profession, there are always those people who see it for the necessary institution that it is. The need now more than ever is to super-serve those people, those readers who recognise that role.

LIKE many journalists who try whenever possible to listen to our readers, what I often hear is an insistent call for a journalism that is grown up, avoids patronising the reader, and understands such an audience so often have wider intellectual horizons and concerns than many editors or newspaper owners think they do.

Recently, the celebrated correspondent and filmmaker John Pilger, writing about the challenges journalism faces and the direction in which he thinks it is heading, made the case for what he called "a fifth estate" in which "journalists break from the masonry of their institutions - and develop a new freedom of the press, a new notion of independence and new ways of accountability".

It's an interesting concept, even if it seems somewhat fanciful in the current economic climate. For too long now, especially in newspaper journalism, we seem to have been presiding over a wake rather than focusing on what we do well and can do even better.

Right now, these are the worst of times and the best of times if you happen to be a journalist. The worst, because we are all still reeling from the perfect storm of a structural change brought about by the impact of the internet and the awareness that there is something rotten in certain quarters of the fourth estate. The best ,because we are living through tumultuous world events that more than ever need the likes of Marie Colvin to bear witness and make sense of them on our behalf.

Speaking at an address in 2010 to remember those journalists who gave their lives to report from the conflict zones of the 21st century, Marie Colvin described her job as "a hard calling". The need for frontline reporting has never been more compelling, she said. The same can be said of good journalism as a whole.

There have been few journalists like her and the need for many more within our industry with the same courage and commitment is more pressing than ever.