The media column - Peter Wilby gets down and dirty with Sarah Sands

Would editors still publish those pictures of abuse from Iraq if they risked imprisonment and the cl

Was the News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, right to publish pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqi youths? To most readers of the New Statesman, I imagine, there would be no doubt, and most journalists would agree. Even the officers' paper, the Daily Telegraph, dismissed "the modern equivalent of the argument that condemned Capt Dreyfus to Devil's Island, namely that, whatever the truth, nothing is to be gained by undermining army morale". Our soldiers, it concluded, "are bigger than that".

That represented the media consensus the morning after the NoW's scoop. Wait long enough, however, and a contrary view will emerge. I make no complaint about that; it is one of the strengths of the British press. For example, in the Telegraph's Sunday sister, Nigel Farndale wrote: "Mr Coulson may . . . have signed the death warrant of the next British soldier killed [in Iraq]. I hope he can sleep at night." Other dissent came from more surprising quarters. Howard Jacobson argued in the Saturday Independent that "it was a wicked thing, at this hour, with feelings running as they have been these last weeks" to publish such pictures. Nick Cohen pointed out in the Observer that "editors will print pictures . . . which may place the lives of British troops in danger, but not Danish cartoons, which may place their own lives in danger".

And there is the nub of it. As I argued here two weeks ago, the Danish cartoons were offensive in intent and the arguments against commissioning and publishing them in the first place were therefore powerful. But editors departed from normal practice in not reprinting the cartoons to show readers what the fuss was about. Fear of the consequences for themselves, their staff and (given the preponderance of Muslim newsagents) their circulations was the only explanation, I argued.

So what's different about the NoW's pictures? Simply this: the freedom to print cartoons mocking the Prophet is not an important one. Human knowledge is not advanced. No abuse of power is exposed. No action is demanded. Publication merely exposes a peculiar Muslim sensitivity that we already knew about. Pictures of soldiers beating up Iraqis, on the other hand, show how western powers behave when they invade other people's countries. Publication prompts the army to find the culprits and to safeguard against such abuse in future.

I say this without disrespect to Farndale, Jacobson or Cohen, who were right to raise the issues they did, and raised them more subtly than my brief references suggest. I say it moreover - and this is an unusual, if not unique, admission from a columnist - without great confidence. Two weeks ago, I expressed the hope that editors would be braver if something more than cartoons were at stake. The trouble with behaving "responsibly" and suppressing what you would normally publish is that people can find arguments why all kinds of other things should not be published.

Editors should ask themselves another question: would they still publish those pictures from Iraq if, as would be the case in many countries, they risked long terms of imprisonment and the closure of their papers?

It is several months since I last highlighted the exciting innovations of Sarah Sands, newish editor of the Sunday Telegraph, which she relaunched last year as "something lovely". But her drive to change this "absolute core Conservative paper" (her words) has not diminished. Her latest decision is to run readers' letters normally confined to publications purchased (or so I am told) in the Soho area. Readers of a sensitive disposition should now turn to another page.

The correspondence began last month after a news story revealed that army instructors were struggling to enforce discipline at training centres because they feared accusations of bullying. "Douglas Dickins, London NW11" wrote that, at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in the 1920s, miscreants "received six of the best on a bare bottom". What happens now, he asked, given Dartmouth has women? Next week, "Gwen Lawes, Cobham, Kent" wrote that she and others were caned at a Wrens' school in the 1950s, "though it wasn't bare but over our knickers". "Mavis Parker, Quorn, Leicestershire" could, so to speak, beat that. At "the Royal Naval School in Portsmouth" in the 1940s, she got "30 of the very best and I could not sit down for five days".

Some editors might then have closed the correspondence. Not the daring Sands. "Any advance on 30?" asked an optimistic reader the following week. There was. Last Sunday, "Doris Benson, Bristol" claimed 36 in four days, also in Portsmouth, on "my bare backside . . . with . . . a big bamboo cane". But "Beryl Smith, London NW8" could cap that. At an Irish convent school in the 1950s she twice got "a barely credible 144" (pun intended?) with a 12in tawse, tied to a whipping horse in front of the whole school.

No, it's not me who's making all this up.