The press is going to be very upset - and Lord Justice Leveson knows it. Anticipating the inevitable onslaught against his findings that will begin this afternoon, he states: “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press”.
But the newspapers will not see it that way. The demand by Leveson for statutory underpinning of a regulator which he portrays as being “genuinely independent” will simply be seen as an unacceptable compromise of the autonomy of an industry that has been free since 1695. For most papers this is a simple matter of principle - Parliament has no role in the press.
Add to that, the judge's call for radical changes in the way that newspapers operate - inevitable after the misdemeanours by the tabloids which provoked this inquiry - and the press industry has even greater cause for concern. There are calls for fines of up to £1 million, a new compliance culture where the regulator decides where apologies are published, a public hall of shame where past apologies and corrections are on permanent display, and the prospect of inquisitorial arbitration hearings where journalists are grilled by legal experts.
Lord Leveson has couched his description of the new regulatory body in language which suggests it will be a champion of the right to freedom of speech. “Legislation,” he claims, “would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press”. But the newspapers will take a different view. They will be horrified at the prospect, set out by Leveson, of the broadcast watchdog Ofcom having a role in newspaper regulation, perhaps even as a backstop if the press fails to “grasp this opportunity” of the model the judge is proposing. This is Leveson using Ofcom as a stick.
This will be too much for the entire spectrum of the newspaper industry, from the conservative titles who backed Lord Black of Brentwood's proposal for a continued system of self-regulation, which Leveson says “fails to meet the test of independence”, to papers such as The Independent and The Guardian which have reported extensively on press misbehaviour and favour a regulatory system without statutory involvement but one which is truly independent of the industry.
For Hugh Grant and Hacked Off, the campaign group which has lobbied hard for radical press reform, this is a moment of triumph. Leveson has given them the ammunition which a parliamentary majority -made up of Labour and LibDem MPs and a rump of Tory rebels - is likely to use to support their demands. The press had hoped they would be given a final period of grace to put their house in order. But Leveson's language diminishes that possibility. A momentum for radical reform is there and - whatever the backlash on newspaper websites this afternoon and in print tomorrow morning - David Cameron will find it difficult to override the judge's wishes.