Matthew Norman: Press freedom is too crucial to be left to politicians

A day before Lord Justice Leveson passes sentence, Dr Johnson's witticism about the Ritalin-esque qualities of imminent execution seems hopelessly inaccurate. Far from being concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of the noose, my mind finds itself semi-paralysed by a nebulous sense of dread. There, it is hardly alone. The whole industry lives in sickly terror today that his lordship will don the black cap tomorrow, by way of recommending a form of statutory control over the press, and the lure of pre-emptive hysteria is hard to resist.

His report will by now have reached No 10 where David Cameron will play the part of appellate judge if, as expected, Leveson advises a form of statutory control. If so, the hysteria from newspapers will be deafening. While some of it will be special pleading and some commercially motivated, at its core the screeching outrage will be more principled than Steve Coogan and Max Mosley may be willing to accept.

If one objection to granting Parliament legal power over the press – even power held in reserve as a sort of Damoclean sword overhanging possible future misconduct – is a vague but sharp unease about what may follow once such a delicate tapestry as the balance between media and government begins to be unpicked, another belongs in his lordship's area of jurisprudence. It is simply a blatant affront to natural justice to give those with a personal grievance any authority, actual or potential, over those who caused it. If you wish to enable an MP or member of the House of Lords who was ridiculed, demonised and, in some instances, imprisoned over expenses, lobbying, or whatever, to vote on legislation governing those who revealed the offence, why not empanel former convicts on a jury trying the allegedly bent copper who put them away in the first place?

Whatever beefed-up alternative to the Press Complaints Commission the industry agrees to advocate must axiomatically be better than that. Self-regulation has hardly been an unmitigated triumph, although it has been more effective than sometimes portrayed. Tabloid hypocrisies have been many and rancid and for too long the broadsheets ignored them with the same craven indulgence with which otherwise decent football fans once turned a deaf 'un to the disgusting chants of their terrace neighbours. But that age died, thank Christ, with the passing of Murdoch imperium.

Those days are over and will no more return than phone hacking or the plundering of medical records. By its very existence, thanks to the evidence it heard and the public repugnance the testimony occasioned, the Leveson Inquiry has already bolted the stable door with the horse recaptured and partially tamed. What wildness survives, however distasteful and sometimes excessive, is a minute price to pay to maintain the comparative cleanliness of an innately clandestine political system which knows no better restraint than the fear of the occasional well-aimed kick in the cobblers from a newspaper.