It is not necessary to swallow every unchallenged bleating from the National Union of Luvvies to recognise that journalism has harboured something rotten at its core.
A gang of men with cameras chasing Sienna Miller down the street, maybe even spitting at her to provoke a photographable reaction; a reporter stuffing a note in the schoolbag of J K Rowling's child; others hacking the phones or computers of cruelly bereaved relatives, or rummaging through celebs' dustbins ... it all makes for uncomfortable reading if you happen to earn your living in the trade.
It matters not that some stars may be roaring hypocrites who employ agents who will sometimes plant gossip in the press to keep their clients in the public eye. Nor is it a proper excuse that public figures who whinge about press treatment have reportedly accepted large payments from the newspapers they despise for interviews.
The startling truth remains that far from there being one "rogue reporter", the News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman, who went to jail in the first hacking trial, it is no longer plausible to talk about one "rogue paper". No one has ever asked me to hack a phone call or personal computer, and my response to any such a request might have contained industrial language. But too many of my confrères and consœurs do seem to have been at it, and I would shed few tears if they got their judicial comeuppance in due course.
There are crooked lawyers, bent coppers, cowboy builders, maverick mechanics, groping teachers, abusing priests, corrupt councillors, lying MPs and ministers, cheating footballers, hungover airline pilots, unscrupulous accountants and thieving baggage handlers. We expect them to be rooted out and punished; the same should go for journalists who resort to illegal or disreputable practices.
Andrew Marr, the BBC political commentator and former newspaper journalist and editor, recalls in his book, My Trade, that his journalism lecturer taught him how to vandalise call boxes to make life hard for rival reporters in the days before mobile phones. Mine didn't teach any such thing, but I do remember a man from the Express boasting of his ability to do it. Marr also describes a long history of inventive but reprehensible inventions masquerading as news, perpetrated by reporters and encouraged by executives. My response is to shudder with disgust, but I do not doubt it has happened even if I have never been put under pressure to make up a story.
Steve Coogan says that among his concerns about tawdry muckraking is the fear that the interests of "public service journalism" will be damaged. I was not aware of his commitment to the important role reporting can play in democracy, but take his worries at face value.
But it may be lost on some following the Leveson inquiry into press conduct that journalism, and especially news reporting, will always struggle to be anything other than a messy business. It routinely invades privacy because it has no choice other than to leave much news unreported.
Who honestly believes no one's privacy is breached when we see television footage depicting famine, war and goodness knows what other forms of human suffering? How can reporters, photographers and cameramen hope to record, with some accuracy, serious and often tragic events without being present, however irksome or objectionable their presence may be?
Even if every reporter who approaches a person whose life has been turned upside down by misfortune, or worse, acts with understanding and restraint, it will still look like harassment if there are 20 such approaches. The media in action will never be a pretty sight, however decently each practitioner may behave.
Another feature of the current debate will also escape the casual follower of evidence to Leveson.
Next time you watch a television report about the inquiry, look out for the sanctimonious, superior tone adopted by the reporter. It happened again last night, in coverage of Anne Diamond's recollections of the press arriving on her doorstep soon after the cot death of her baby. No TV man or woman would dream of doing such a thing, of course. Then how was it possible for a subsequent item, about the death of the football manager Gary Speed, to show his agent reading a statement to the media outside the family home? Think back to Diana, Princess of Wales; was there not ample television footage of her being "doorstepped" at her gym?
If it is unpleasant but necessary for TV crews to be there, it cannot be otherwise for those working in print.
I remember visiting the scene of a terrible car crash in which four, possibly five young people had died. The sister of one of the victims arrived to lay down flowers. I gently asked if she would care to pay any kind of tribute to her brother's memory and this, briefly but with dignity, she did. I retreated, but the poor girl was then harangued by another reporter - a television reporter - with repeated requests to say something similar to camera, even though I had offered to share her words with him and others to spare her additional distress. We all remember ITN's Terry Lloyd as a brave war correspondent mistakenly killed by US forces in Iraq; have we forgotten that Eric Cantona felt his privacy sufficiently invaded, when Lloyd approached him during a family holiday after his infamous "Kung-Fu" court case, to assault him?
There is a lot that is wrong with the press. I feel acute shame at some of what has been done in the name of journalism. But there is much to be proud of, too: Harry Evans and the Thalidomide scandal; the honest and decent reporting of disastrous occurrences; the perilous work of men and women like Lloyd during conflicts ... and the tabloids, despite less admirable traits, have done their share of noble work.
My former colleague Paul Vallely wrote this in The Independent after receiving a letter from a 94-year-old nun saying how sorry she was that he was a journalist, but that she was praying for him:
"A number of counter-cultural thoughts occur to me. For a start, I met that old nun 25 years ago, in Ethiopia where I was reporting on the terrible famine. What people such as me wrote then undoubtedly spurred efforts which saved thousands of lives. Despite all Murdoch's people splashing about in their foul swamp of wickedness and criminality, the state of British journalism is generally sound and even envied around the world. Some mistakes are inevitable when you work as fast as journalists do. But its investigative reach and tenacity remain impressive.
The corrupted culture of the News of the World was exposed through 18 months of dogged work by a handful of assiduous journalists on The Guardian and The Independent papers. Without them, the Murdoch empire would have sailed on unscathed and David Cameron would almost certainly have allowed it to take full control of BSkyB ... It is also easy to forget that the much-deplored tabloid tradition of paying the police and others for information is not always a violation of the public interest. The flood of evidence about MPs fiddling millions of pounds of expenses came from a CD of detailed spreadsheets of parliamentary expense claims for which the Telegraph gave money to a public official."
None of this will sway press-bashers. Plenty of people will continue to allow journalists in the electronic media to present themselves as holier than their print equivalents. Good journalism will continue to be stifled by unjust libel laws; Leveson may lead to even more unjust laws being introduced to provide shelter for the guilty or questionable as well as the innocent from the media's gaze.
And wherever Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day is performed, audiences will chortle approvingly when they hear one of the characters declare: "I'm with you on the freedom of the press. It's the bloody newspapers I can't stand."