A sordid tale of excess and brutality, of a world dominated by journalists with their ears to the keyhole, of tyrannical newspapers wielding remarkable power and of a political class not only cowed, but consumed, by that power.

Sound familiar? With two of Britain's most senior policemen out of a job, the prime minister under pressure for his serenading of News Corp and one of the world's most powerful press barons, in the form of Rupert Murdoch, summoned to testify to parliament, it would be one way of describing the current state of affairs.

In fact, it is how Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde saw the state of Britain 120 years ago.

"In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising," Wilde wrote in 1891, several years before a court case in which intimate details of his own private life became the centre of a media storm.

Wilde believed that in America "the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever" but that its power there had been diminished in the eyes of the public having "carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme".