Milly Dowler

July 5 2011. Last night, BBC’s Newsnight programme was devoted to two items: claims that messages left on the mobile phone of teenage murder victim, Milly Dowler, had been hacked into, on behalf of the News of the World, and a wide-ranging debate about our national identities, particularly Scotland and England.

As the programme’s host, Jeremy Paxman, moved from the one story to the other, he might have said both were closely linked. After all, surely we are identified by the newspapers that we read.

It’s off the scale, the public outrage over the Dowler hacking allegations, at least in comparison to the claims of hacking against various celebrities. If the allegations are to be believed, the deleting of messages on Dowler's phone – presumably to clear space for more messages and therefore more potential newspaper copy – will have had her family believing she might be still alive.

It’s hardly relevant whether senior editors were exactly aware of just what lengths their reporters (and their hired hands) were going to, to deliver stories. But they knew the culture they were presiding over. For all that the dark arts can successfully expose criminals and hypocrites, who, these days, perceives the paper as being a particular defender of the public good? It feels habit-forming: a secret filming here, a hacked phone there; whether it’s a crook, celebrity or a child.

Quite why the sex life of a celebrity or a politician should interest us, the general public, is anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s gratifying to know someone else is in deeper shit than we are. But that’s who we are and it would be disingenuous for at least one or two newspapers not to pander to that trait.

Former MSP, Tommy Sheridan, is now serving a jail sentence for perjury. But in simple terms, who would not be tempted to deny an allegation of sexual ‘misconduct’, whether true or false?

Footballers are apparently role models – not that they ever asked to be – and politicians are supposedly paragons of virtue – even though, when was the last time you heard one say as such? Rather, they are, instead, the often flimsy pretexts for rummaging around their private lives.

And we, the public, collude each time it takes place.

But if, as some commentators are already suggesting, we are at some form of tipping point, who will it be that tips first? The public, by choosing to no longer purchase newspapers that play to our prurience or the newspapers massively changing editorial tack, whilst hoping they won’t be abandoned, by us, in the process?