The federal government’s decision to initiate a debate on privacy laws has provoked some typically premature condemnation from some sections of the media. Some popular media switches turned from vaudeville to philosophy; the nobility of journalism was invoked along with that tired and misunderstood quote from Thomas Jefferson about newspapers being preferable to government if there was a choice between the two.

Perhaps there should be a law against journalists jumping to conclusions too quickly (just kidding).

The media should have nothing to fear about a debate on privacy.  In an increasingly wired world where the lines between public and private are more blurred than ever, it might even help journalists for society to debate and decide what is legal and appropriate. An open-minded media must be part of that debate, not a knee-jerk opponent.

Sometimes these debates can have ironic consequences.  The most well-known and widespread telephone-hacking exercise in Australia was the illegal NSW police tapes published (but not created or paid for) by The Age in 1984.  One of the results of the Royal Commission into the tapes was that phone tapping became legal for state police forces, with strict safeguards.

As a newspaper editor 20 years ago, I often argued that it would be a fair trade-off if the media could get more favourable defamation laws in return for tougher laws on privacy, as long as the privacy laws were balanced properly against freedom of expression and there were  public interest defences. At the time, Australia had perhaps the most restrictive defamation laws in Western democracy; plaintiffs could sue in any state jurisdiction depending on where they thought they could get the best result, truth was not an absolute defence and the laws favoured the rich and powerful who could outspend all but the largest media outlets and freeze debate on issues irrespective of whether they intended to follow through with their writ.

The defamation  laws were so frustrating and restrictive that, in my opinion, they acted as an incentive to stretch ethical boundaries. Journalists working on difficult stories became focused on making the story “legal” or “getting it through the lawyers”.  Some journalists believed that if their story cleared the legal hurdles, then it must be OK.   Steering through the legal hazards did not necessarily mean it was ethically seaworthy.

Well, the defamation laws have been cleared up.  They are not everything the media wanted, but they are more uniform, offer cheaper justice and address most of the old weaknesses.

Now is a good time to debate privacy. It is not a perfect time because the government’s revival of the debate has already been seen as a vindictive reaction to the News of the World scandal in Britain. But it is a good time because of the rapid technological development in social media, the growing interdependence of online and print media, and the increasingly fierce competition in broadcast and online media, which tends to test ethical boundaries and force very quick decisions on ethical matters.

One of News International’s strategies in its phone-hacking defence has been to try to build perceptions that the problem is not limited to its own newspapers. One of its recovery strategies is to promise to take action to improve journalism as a whole as well as in its own newsrooms.

Now is the time to deliver. The News  of the World scandal provides the Murdoch organisation with a unique leadership opportunity to improve accountability in Australia and rebuild respect for journalists. With 70% of the metropolitan daily newspaper circulation in Australia, the ball is in the Murdoch court.

The best way to avoid tougher government regulation is to improve self-regulation. The Murdoch cleansing should not stop at a one-off check on whether hacking has occurred in Australia or whether payments have been made by police. Good reputation management relies on long-term and permanent strategies. It is not good enough to wave a code of ethics as evidence of high ethical standards; the public must be able to see how they work and how they are policed as well as what happens when they are breached.

For a start, newspapers should provide more power and resources to the Australian Press Council.

The council is not perfect, but it is the best available mechanism that does not involve government regulation. Newspapers must be required to publish adverse Press Council adjudications and they should publish them with a prominence recommended by the council. If they choose not to publish, they should be fined an amount that allows the Press Council to buy advertisements reporting the finding. These provisions may need to have an appeal mechanism.

Too often we see newspapers publish adverse rulings at the back of the paper alongside death notices where readers are interested in only one thing. They are published under bland headlines such as “Press Council ruling” in a type face that makes them indistinguishable from the advertisements.  The same newspapers invoke the word “crisis” in headlines on stories involving a footballer changing clubs or a moderately vigorous exchange of views.  It is little wonder that the public is cynical about self-regulation.

As an editor, I would have resented and resisted any attempt by anyone to make me publish something adverse about the paper on a certain day on the front page.  No editor could risk having news judgment so distorted if, for instance, 9-11 happened on the day of suggested publication. But in the interests of greater accountability for newspapers, I would find it very difficult to argue against a professional peer group that required me to publish an adverse ruling within a window of, say, seven days. Front-page treatment would be for the highest order of breaches and  bear some equivalence to the prominence of the lapse. The Press Council would also have to take into account the smaller pages of tabloids, where page three may be considered just as prominent as the bottom half of the front page in a broadsheet. And, of course, editors would be free to tell readers they disagree with the ruling and explain why.

Newspapers must explain their rules and share their ethical dialogues with readers. They must show examples of how journalists who break the rules are disciplined and sometimes dismissed.

Newspapers should consider appointing ombudsmen to introduce independence to the internal complaints mechanism. Editors should forget the disastrous ombudsman experiment at The Sydney Morning Herald, a clumsy episode that has set back the cause of independent scrutiny by decades.

In short, newspapers need, dare I say it,  a PR campaign; not a bucket of spin but a strategic communications campaign aimed at bridging the gap between perceptions of journalists and the reality. Journalists continue to be ranked low on ethics and honesty when compared with other groups. Journalists don’t have to be popular, but they should be respected if they expect public support in debates on restrictions of media freedom. Journalists have a trashy reputation that isn’t deserved. There is a good case that the Australian media is as good as anywhere in the world; it is a case that is rarely made out by people who should.

Newspapers need to  keep reminding people about the huge benefits of a free press and journalism’s great victories over corruption, discrimination, organised crime and other wrongdoings. But they must also show the public they are prepared to condemn and eradicate those who betray the responsibilities that go along with freedom of the press.

And those who wave the free press banner and resort to ancient quotations should remember that Thomas Jefferson also said the only thing that contained the truth in newspapers were the advertisements.  In their fight for survival against a comparatively anarchic new media, the greatest assets newspapers have are  public trust and credibility in the mastheads. Rebuilding those assets is the most important challenge arising from the News of the World affair.

*Michael Smith is a former editor of The Age, a former group executive editor of Fairfax and a former member of the Australian Press Council. He now owns a PR agency, Inside Public Relations.