Nearly 20 years ago a young Tory Cabinet Minister called David Mellor declared that "the press – the popular press – is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon".
Some months earlier, the Press Complaints Commission had replaced the discredited Press Council. The Calcutt Report, published in June 1990, had said the new commission would have 18 months to demonstrate "that non-statutory self-regulation could be made to work effectively. This is a stiff test for the press. If it fails, we recommend that a statutory system for handling complaints be introduced."
Twenty years later the Press Complaints Commission is generally judged to have failed because it believed assurances from News of the World executives that phone hacking was not widespread. The prospect of statutory regulation is high on the agenda again, and could be a key recommendation of the inquiry into press ethics being chaired by Lord Justice Leveson. But there are, I'm glad to say, some thoughtful editors who think self-regulation should be given another try.
One of them is Lionel Barber of The Financial Times, who, at a meeting last week organised by Thomson Reuters, and attended by a swathe of newspaper magnificos, said that those calling for tougher laws to counter irresponsible journalism such as phone hacking by the News of the World needed to take into account the financial pressures under which newspapers are operating.
This, if I may say so, is a point this column has often made. "It is an existential problem. Newspapers are dying in this country," said Mr Barber. He wants to give self-regulation one more chance. By the way, I'm sorry no tabloid editors showed up at the Thomson Reuters bash since they are in the eye of the storm.
Think what has changed in the 20 years since Calcutt. The newspaper industry, then widely profitable, is now fighting for its life. The Times, Guardian, Sunday Times, Independent and Daily Express are all making losses, in some cases to be numbered in tens of millions of pounds a year. The Daily Mirror, once a cash cow, is probably scarcely making any money at all, and The Sun is much less profitable than it once was (and selling about 55 per cent of what it did at its height).
The Daily Telegraph is earning some money (though with a circulation less than half that of 30 years ago) while the Daily Mail, although still the most profitable title, will probably make less money this year than last. Mr Barber's FT delivers reasonable profits, but not on its newsprint sales in the United Kingdom.
I know this has all been said before, including by me, but the decline of newspaper sales, and the debilitating losses incurred by some titles, are much more grievous than most politicians and critics of the press appear to realise. Imagine a kennel of noisy and supposedly aggressive Rottweilers which strike dread into the hearts of neighbours. They bark and howl night and day. Yet a visit to the kennels would establish that most of these once reputedly fearsome beasts are toothless or fat, or both.
John Kampfner, director of Index on Censorship, was absolutely right at last week's meeting when he said: "The idea that the Fourth Estate is too powerful in this country is one of the great canards of modern times."
Of course phone hacking was disgraceful, and of course all those responsible, whether at the News of the World or on other papers, should be punished. But to fixate with inquisitionary zeal on the hacking scandal is a bit like obsessing about the poor quality of the plumbing in Pompeii shortly before the entire town disappears under a mound of volcanic ash. I'm more interested – much more interested – in whether newspapers will survive.
And here a word of warning, which I touched on last week. The Metropolitan Police briefly threatened The Guardian with the Official Secrets Act. Now, admittedly not for the first time, it is using court orders to obtain footage of the recent riots from several media organisations. This suggests to me that in a changed anti-newspaper climate the police are becoming tougher with the media and, believe me, there are many other authorities which could act in the same way.
Much of our national press is already pretty feeble, and could not easily bear the kind of restrictions which would almost certainly follow statutory regulation. Lionel Barber is right. Newspapers, tabloids and broadsheets, despite their many differences, are in the end all in the same boat, and some powerful people are only too glad to see that we are so quickly shipping water.
Wasted chance to quiz Blair on Libya
On last Friday's World at One on Radio Four, Tony Blair was interviewed by Shaun Ley. As a Middle-East peace envoy, Mr Blair clearly had something to say about the Palestinian attempt to achieve statehood before talks with Israel have succeeded. He seemed to think that recognition now was not a good idea.
Mr Blair does not give interviews to the British media every day. I was therefore surprised that he was not asked about his secret visits to Col Gaddafi in Libya, disclosed by The Sunday Telegraph eight days ago, and amplified by the paper yesterday. Although they took place after Mr Blair stood down as Prime Minister, they seem pretty irregular. I appreciate the interview was on Palestine, but mightn't Mr Ley have been allowed by the BBC to slip in a question on Libya?