Having been jailed in 2007 for hacking phones on behalf of the News of the World, Glenn Mulcaire this week pleaded for understanding. “I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically,” the private investigator told The Guardian. “But, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had broken the law at all.”

Pushing the limits is a weak way of describing the News of the World’s alleged actions in 2002 in hacking into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the missing teenager who was later found murdered, and deleting messages to make space for others that might give it an exclusive story. “Beyond reprehensible” – The Times’ phrase in its editorial this week – is far better.

Still, Mr Mulcaire did give a context for the epidemic of hacking into confidential mobile phone and banking data that swept through Fleet Street in the 1990s and 2000s. “Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results,” he said.

Standards on British tabloids have indeed been diluted over decades by the distorted incentives on editors and reporters. The rewards for bending rules – whether by plagiarising others’ work, making up quotes and stories, or illegal invasions of privacy – were higher than the risks of getting caught.

The News of the World reporters who used Mr Mulcaire’s services (he was being paid £100,000 a year to supply information) knew they would be in trouble if they did not produce exclusive stories on crime and celebrities. They also knew that few questions would be asked about how they had obtained the facts and that, if trouble struck, their editors would circle the wagons.

In the Dowler case, the chain of responsibility led to Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the News of the World and now chief executive of News International, the UK paper arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which also owns The Times. Ms Brooks insisted to staff that it was “inconceivable that I knew [of] or worse, sanctioned” the phone abuse.

I take her word for that but it is very conceivable that she knew of hacking on her watch, although she has denied it. She was in charge at the time and, if she did not know, she ought to have done. News International instead spent years portraying Clive Goodman, a former reporter who was jailed with Mr Mulcaire, as a lone renegade.

While Fleet Street editors do their best to see no evil, those in the US are far more inclined to discipline or fire reporters who behave unethically. The fact that your career could well end humiliatingly if you misbehave is a strong incentive to do the right thing.

In March, Sari Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist on the Washington Post, was found to have copied and pasted material from the Arizona Republic into two news articles. Marcus Brauchli, the Washington Post editor, suspended her for three months and apologised to readers for “this serious lapse”.

Compare her fate with that of Johann Hari, a columnist on The Independent, who admitted last week to having used in interviews quotes his subjects had given to other publications, or material they had written themselves. Mr Hari, having at first insisted that other journalists did the same thing, then apologised half-heartedly for having prioritised “intellectual accuracy”.

“It was wrong but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it’s a great scandal,” Simon Kelner, The Independent’s then-editor, told the BBC languidly. He was replaced as editor later in the week after Alexander Lebedev, the paper’s owner, told The Guardian that the paper was “boring” compared with the “more entertaining” Daily Mail.

Mr Hari committed a misdemeanour compared with the felonies at the News of the World but the handling of the incident was typical of Fleet Street. “Perhaps it was a mistake, but we’ve said sorry now and, anyway, our rivals do the same thing so why is everyone picking on us?” is the usual reaction.

The ultimate responsibility for this insouciance lies with the proprietors who now dominate Fleet Street’s culture. Mr Murdoch is the prime example, having broken into the UK by buying the News of the World in 1969 and then used it to build an empire, helped by the influence it gave him with politicians.

Mr Murdoch’s tolerance for invasions of privacy by his reporters – and the belief that he would not be subject to sanctions by governments that owed him political favours – gave his editors confidence. Ms Brooks herself has formidable connections, being friendly with the Murdoch family and David Cameron, prime minister.

Thankfully, the edifice of irresponsibility is now toppling. Mr Murdoch’s effort to buy the 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting that he does not already own has been endangered by the debacle and Fleet Street faces a public inquiry into how it allowed reporters and private investigators to run amok.

In the past, both Mr Murdoch’s tabloids and others generally have brushed aside questions about their

methods, believing that they would be protected from discovery or discipline. From reporters on doorsteps to editors reporting to proprietors with political backing, there were bad incentives.

The hacking affair and the inquiries into it must change these incentives. If not, Fleet Street will deserve the contempt in which it is held.

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