Ian Burrell: As usual, the press is hyperventilating – but this time it's out of sheer nerves

Media Studies: We will oppose, as a matter of fundamental principle, any system of regulation imposed

The commentary around the Leveson inquiry has been mostly couched in terms of the need to curb a bully boy right-wing press that hounds the ordinary citizen and anyone in the public eye who does not match its political persuasion.

It has been a story of the Daily Express harassing the McCanns, of the Daily Mail monstering Hugh Grant and of the News of the World's appalling treatment of the Dowler family. Liberal voices have mostly rallied to the cause of Grant's Hacked Off group and its hopes that the state will take a role in bringing the press into line.

Nick Clegg has indicated his support for Parliament to oversee a press that has done its best to get up his nose. Ed Miliband is keen to fully implement Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations, which will be published on Thursday and are expected to call for a new independent regulator with statutory underpinning. All it needs for this to become law is the support of a cadre of Conservatives – possibly irked by ongoing interest in the expenses claims of MPs – and latest estimates suggest up to 70 would be prepared to defy the whip to bring the press to heel.

On the left there appears to be little sense that such a development would threaten free speech and would be regarded in the US as a shocking breach of civil liberties, a breach of the first amendment of the Constitution.

Extraordinarily, even the National Union of Journalists is calling for statutory underpinning. Reading the comments on The Guardian's website it is clear that many of its readers are convinced of the need for MPs to step in. The vitriol against newspapers in general seems to take little account of the fact that they are reading a newspaper website, or that The Guardian itself was responsible for exposing the failure of the criminal justice system in prosecuting those responsible for phone hacking at the News of the World.

Their assumption would appear to be that The Guardian, edited by Alan Rusbridger, supports a degree of state control as a suitable culmination to its investigations into the rotten elements of the press. Perhaps such readers assume a similar outlook at The Independent – which has been equally aggressive in laying bare the sins of News Corp – and Lionel Barber's Financial Times (the two papers named in a recent Populus poll as the most trusted by the public)?

That is not the case. In a submission to Leveson on Friday, The Independent, the FT, The Guardian and the London Evening Standard came out emphatically against any political intervention, proposing an independent regulatory system, free of the state and based on rolling contracts.

The papers are making clear that they are not simply the cohorts of the Mail – which has angrily challenged the very legitimacy of Leveson – but have their own concerns.

These titles must be hoping that some MPs – perhaps some Labour and Lib Dem MPs – will have second thoughts about the value of freedom of the press and whether investigative journalism in the public interest will benefit from Parliament landing its first grappling hooks into an industry that has been allowed to steer its own course for 300 years. Those MPs might consider that the freedom of speech group Index on Censorship also opposes any form of state intervention.

In normal circumstances an inquiry report such as this would be a source of breathless excitement for the press – but this time the breathlessness is partly a result of anxiety. It's expected to be a hefty document setting out in detail the events of the lengthy inquiry and the cameo performances of Hollywood stars and press barons. Leveson is unlikely to spare the rod and his words should generate great copy.

Old hands like former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore are urging colleagues not to trash Leveson but to report his findings fairly, especially his comments about their own papers – even where shortcomings are set out "in painful detail".

Perhaps then the industry will win the chance of a trial period under the eye of a beefed-up independent watchdog, free of state involvement but compelling papers to "make public our procedures" and "set out our lines of responsibility". Such concessions would be a small price to pay for a free press, even if they would give succour to the big corporations and libel lawyers who already have the upper hand over poorly resourced investigative journalists.

Supporters of state-backed reform insist that change is needed not for the sake of companies but for the ordinary citizen who has been denied redress by previous attempts at press self-regulation. With David Cameron so closely linked to News Corp, these radicals may well get their wish.

If so, journalists will look to the Defamation Bill currently going through the House of Lords, in the hope that statute can also make a positive contribution to freedom of speech.

The real story of those pictures of Saddam in his underpants

The Sun has never had any qualms about publishing photographs of people in a state of undress but its 2005 pictures of Saddam Hussein in his Y-fronts might come back to haunt the paper.

A report by The Daily Beast, claiming that the image was obtained after payment "to a US official on American soil", carries more significance now than it did seven years ago. Since evidence emerged that News International journalists were being investigated for bribing British officials, News Corp has been concerned by any hint of similar alleged activity in the US, a development which would threaten not just the share price but the status of the company itself.

The US Department of Justice, the FBI, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether the firm has broken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing British police and public officials.

An interesting dimension to the story is the way The Sun described its working practices at the time. The pictures, said managing editor Graham Dudman, were obtained by "professional journalistic methods" and were a "compelling image that any newspaper or broadcaster would publish". Dudman said The Sun paid a "small sum" of more than £500.

The paper also quoted US military sources saying the pictures were being made public because it was "important that the people of Iraq see him like that to destroy the myth". The fact is that the US denied it had released the pictures and "aggressively investigated" the source of the lapse.

In the wake of the Bribery Act of 2010, there is no way that any Sun executive would describe such use of the cheque book as "professional journalistic methods". But News International was happy to rubbish The Daily Beast's reporting as "a lame attempt to regurgitate old news". They must hope that US military officials, and all the other American authorities that are looking at News Corp, view the issue with the same disdain.

Twitter: @iburrell

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