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Editorial: No to press legislation

We should remember this: The British press is the best in the world

Lord Justice Leveson will publish his report into the culture and ethics of the British press on Thursday. As you can see from the debate we publish today between two estimable journalists turned academics, it is a subject which is much exercising those of us in the business.

David Cameron, caught on the back foot over his close relationship to the Murdoch empire, his friendship with Rebekah Brooks and the employment of Andy Coulson, instituted the inquiry in July last year following the revelation that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked. This was the moment the scandal at News International crossed over into the public consciousness; it moved away from complaining celebrities to defenceless people unlucky enough to be caught in the news machine. Under pressure from Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, Mr Cameron had little option.

As well as the conduct of the press, Lord Justice Leveson was to look at the relationships between politicians and proprietors, and between police and press, both arguably more important than the failures of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Both, though, have been regrettably downgraded, and the battleground is this: will the judge recommend statutory underpinning of press regulation? And, if – as expected – he does, how should Mr Cameron respond?

No one denies that sections of our press were mired in some awful practices as cheap shortcuts to sensational stories. Indiscriminate phone hacking to fish for tittle-tattle is rightly against the law, and those who break it should pay a heavy price.

That, though, is the point. For phone and computer hacking, invasion of privacy and prejudicing court proceedings, tough laws exist to protect the public. Those laws simply have not been rigorously applied, and that, of course, is less a matter for a press regulator – although the PCC was undoubtedly complacent – than for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In the phone-hacking scandal, the police failed almost as badly as parts of the press. A second point worth making is that bad journalism was brought to account by good journalism.

In this country, the state has not sought to control publishing since the repeal of the Licensing Act in 1695. There is a strong constitutional principle here, and the case for overturning it has to be overwhelming. It is not.

No one defends the PCC, the toothless self-regulator of the press for the past two decades. The Black-Hunt proposals make for a better system. These rid the model of serving editors, and give the new regulator powers to investigate without prior complaint and to impose fines on guilty parties of up to £1m. All groups have indicated they will sign up to it.

So what does Mr Cameron do if some form of statutory underpinning is recommended?

A pragmatic solution would be to say he will legislate, but then hold it in reserve, warning the press it has, say, three years to prove the Hunt-Black proposals work. Or else.

A handful of journalists forgot that we protect and serve the British public, and brought shame on us. But there are perhaps 40,000 journalists working in this country, and we should all remember this: for the most part, the British press, national and local, is the most vibrant, innovative, and tenacious in the world, and we know how to hold those in authority properly to account. We should be wary of anything that impairs that.