The saying "All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely dates back, according to one search I did, at least to the first Lord Acton in 1887, but a similar idea was expressed by William Pitt the century before. It seems apposite for our own time as well, when you look at the unfolding of the News of the World saga this week.
The real problem with that paper, it seems to me from what has emerged, is that for too long it behaved as if it was free from legal controls. Regrettably, in a practical sense, that appears to have been true. If it could tap into people's mobile phone accounts at will; if it could keep the police onside by handing our cash; if it had the resources to see off legal challenges, what had it to fear?
Only the Press Complaints Commission, of which one blogger this week (Ian Smart, I think) said he usually advises people to save themselves the cost of the stamp.
Of ocurse any suggestion of regulation of the press in a free society raises difficult issues. But the balance has tipped too far in its favour. Whether it is possible or desirable to devise some sort of licensing system, at least for turnover above a certain threshold; whether there should be any restriction on, say, the privilege against the disclosure of sources if there is a question of illegality; whether a stronger investigation and complaints body can be devised (remember "last chance saloon", anyone?), I don't know. But these are the sort of issues that could usefully be debated at this point.
In any event I am sure there should be limits on how much of a media empire any one entity should own or control. The public interest is certainly not in favour of freedom of the press meaning big enough to be beyond the law.