Downing Street appeared to signal the end of the Press Complaints Commission yesterday when David Cameron described the organisation as "ineffective and lacking in rigour" and called for a new system of regulation to uphold the "proper, decent standards that we expect".
Having been shocked by news of the closure the day before of one of Britain's oldest national newspapers, the PCC chairman Baroness Buscombe was suddenly confronted by the prospect of the demise of her own comparatively fledgling institution.
The PCC promptly issued a statement, pleading for a reprieve. "We do not accept that the scandal of phone hacking should claim, as a convenient scalp, the Press Complaints Commission," it said. "The work of the PCC, and of a press allowed to have freedom of expression, has been grossly undervalued today." But the words of the Prime Minister suggested that the PCC, which marked its 20th anniversary this year, was unlikely to survive the inquiry into press standards that he was setting in motion.
"Let's be honest: the Press Complaints Commission has failed. In this case – in the hacking case – it was, frankly, completely absent," he said.
The tough words sounded familiar. It was 1989 when then Home Office minister David Mellor responded to a series of tabloid misdemeanours by warning that "the press – the popular press – is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon". As they supped in The Cape bar in east London on Thursday evening, journalists from the News of the World may have reflected that their owner, Rupert Murdoch, had already called time.
But, as News Corp apparently prepares to launch a Sunday edition of the The Sun in the printing schedule formerly occupied by the News of the World, many will have their doubts as to whether Mr Cameron's inquiry can deliver meaningful reform of the press.
When Mr Mellor spoke, a generation ago, an inquiry into press standards was already under way, led by David Calcutt QC and prompted by such tabloid behaviour as dressing up as medical orderlies to visit a seriously injured television star in his hospital bed.
The Calcutt inquiry led to the closure of the Press Council and it was replaced by the new PCC, which had 18 months to prove that self-regulation of the press could still work.
Two decades later, we have another crisis in the popular press, though few voices are currently calling for government regulation.
During its short history the PCC has done considerable work in resolving individual complaints behind the scenes and raising its public profile. Bob Satchwell, executive editor of the Society of Editors, argues that the commission, like Mr Cameron himself, was misled over the hacking scandal. But change is coming.
Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, has been campaigning for a public inquiry in the wake of the phone-hacking revelations. He argues that any new body needs to be independent, transparent and with adequate sanctions and the means to investigate major issues in the public interest.
"What we don't want is just a name change," he said. "There's a risk that this massive standards inquiry could produce quite a lot of interesting conversations and recommendations but won't do anything concrete. We could just end up with a Press Standards Commission instead of the PCC – there has to be material change."
Last night the independent members of the PCC, including the former BBC chairman Lord Grade, issued a statement saying the "vital work of the PCC must be allowed to continue for the public good".Reuse content