With different advice, I might have chosen to pursue a career in journalism rather than teaching.

Despite going down the education road, I welcomed and enjoyed dealings with journalists, particularly Herald stalwarts like Barclay McBain and my former pupil, the late Calum Macdonald. If anything, my regard for the profession has grown, despite the 2019 survey placing journalists ahead of politicians but behind car salesmen in the league of public trust.

That’s perhaps understandable, given some spectacular press own goals. Confidence in journalists and the press in general was badly shaken by phone hacking and the Milly Dowler scandal. The public’s thirst for celebrity gossip and sensationalism is no defence. Yet, it should be remembered that it was The Guardian newspaper, not the police, that uncovered the scale of the phone hacking scandal and the payments made to corrupt public officials.

Fallout from the hacking disaster intensified demands for further curtailment of press freedom. Often, the most strident demands came from those with most to hide or those resentful of being held to account. At Westminster, opposition parties have failed to lay a glove on Mr Johnson or hold his government sufficiently to account. He continues to treat Prime Minister’s Questions as something of a joke.

Opposition impotence means it has increasingly fallen to the press to enforce accountability and shed light on ministerial hypocrisy and double standards. It was from the press that we learned of the Whitehall farces of Hancock’s half hour and Cummings on the road to Barnard Castle. In less knockabout fashion, it was the press that revealed Covid failings, the scandal of MPs’ expenses, cash for questions, arms to Iraq and so on. Channel 4 News is head and shoulders above any other news broadcaster in holding politicians to account. Cynics might suggest that is the main reason for the proposal to sell off the channel.

Politicians around the world understand perfectly well the potential of print, broadcast and digital journalism to hold them to account. Former President Trump made a point of picking on journalists who were not onside. One was a “slimeball” for accurately reporting that Mr Trump had described American war dead as “losers”. Trump rallies became dangerous places for journalists who had been critical of the President.

Mr Trump successfully undermined objective reporting with the repeated mantra, “fake news”. Things are even more hazardous for journalists in other parts of the world. In a speech on World Press Freedom Day in 2020, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet reported that around 1,000 journalists have been killed over the last 10 years. Ninety per cent of the killings remain “unresolved”, raising questions about who authorised them and what, if any, efforts were made to find the perpetrators.

Equally sinister is the growth of what Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) describe as digital predators who target and harass journalists online. Some are unquestionably state sponsored, mounting sustained action against journalists perceived to be hostile to the regime. The Russian “Kremlin’s Troll Army” has been singled out by RSF. Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News has spoken of the impact on her family when her home and family details were posted online by one such site. Former Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga spelled out the threat posed by digital predators, “When journalists are targeted in the context of protests and criticism these attacks are intended to silence all civil society".

As in every sphere of life, technology has revolutionised journalism. Everyone with a keyboard has the potential to be a “citizen journalist”. The difference being that those on social media feel no obligation to conform to the core principles of ethical journalism, including truth, accuracy, fairness, impartiality and accountability.

In that free for all, wild west environment, ethical journalism is essential to hold back and balance the tide of verbal assault, smear and misrepresentation. Otherwise, hare-brained conspiracy theories peddled online by the likes of QAnon will continue to gain traction. As Simonetta Sommaruga put it, press freedom must be constantly defended to counteract the “gathering storm” of online “moralistic masses”.

Of course, it’s not just those who work and write in the political sphere who are at risk. Journalists have paid a heavy price for letting the world know about the environmental devastation in the forests of the Far East and South America. RSF has reported that investigative journalists are “The Bête Noir” of organised crime. It’s believed around 30 journalists have been killed in the last four years when investigating organised crime.

The recent murder in the Netherlands of respected reporter Peter de Vries, is believed to be a result of his investigation into drug gangs that may have Scottish connections. Italian and Mexican journalists have been regularly targeted by the Mafia and drug cartels. Much nearer home, Russell Findlay’s book, Acid Attack – A Journalist’s War with Organised Crime, describes how, in 2015, he was attacked with a knife and had acid thrown in his face at his own front door.

Journalism and print journalism in particular, are further endangered by day to day and longer-term financial challenges. Those who shrug and say good riddance are missing the point. Whether we agree or not with what is written, it encourages us to think for ourselves in ways that deepen our understanding of the political, economic and social issues of the day.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman recently confirmed, “The PM fundamentally believes in the freedom of the press”. That’s reassuring, but it’s still vitally important to safeguard quality and ethical reporting and journalism. Authoritarian regimes around the globe attack the press as the first step in silencing all opposition. Despite its flaws, a free press remains the best guardian of our most precious freedoms and rights.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.