Concluding the presentation of his report on Thursday, Lord Justice Leveson said this: "The ball is back in the politicians' court. They must now decide who guards the guardians." Even as MPs proceeded to toss that ball to and fro, however, possession was being disputed by the newspapers. And by yesterday there were signs that this might suit at least some politicians quite well.
For while David Cameron was basking in some of the most glowing headlines since he became Prime Minister – his reward for rejecting even the relatively small amount of statute proposed in the Leveson Report – there was also a growing recognition of the practical difficulties of legislating. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, in calling for full implementation of the report's recommendations, had outlined a timetable that would bring a new newspaper regulator into being only by 2015. Others suggested it could be done faster, but what they neglected to say was that this would require a degree of political unanimity which, quite simply, is not there.
This presents newspapers with an opportunity they must seize, not just with a due sense of responsibility and a full awareness of what is required, but with the same urgent sense of a looming deadline that many of them observe every day. The window will not be open long. The nature of the challenge was set out by the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, when she told the BBC that it was now for the press to show how it proposed to put in place a self-regulatory body that adheres to the Leveson principles and said she wanted to see plans "moving forward swiftly".
You can bet she does, because every day without a convincing alternative to the present, ineffectual Press Complaints Commission will increase the impatience of those who believe legislation is the only answer. This is also the prevailing public mood, informed – understandably – by the horrendous experiences of families such as the Dowlers and the McCanns. Any plan the newspapers come up with has to pass that test. It will not be easy.
The first priority for the press is to ditch any thought of resurrecting the so-called Hunt-Black plan – put together by the head of the PCC, Lord Hunt, and Lord Black of the Telegraph Group and the Press Standards Board. Submitted to the Leveson Inquiry in a belated attempt to pre‑empt statutory press regulation, this would have left the regulation of the press essentially in its own hands. It went nowhere near meeting the principles – above all, independence from press, government and politicians – that the Leveson Report rightly requires.
Second, the press must offer a detailed blueprint for the structure and funding of a new regulatory body, building on Lord Justice Leveson's requirements. It must have coherence if it is to carry conviction outside the industry.
And third, the press must consider what sort of person should head the proposed new regulatory body, and preferably name names. The choice will be crucial to public acceptance of the new institution; as its first public face, he or she must inspire widespread respect and trust. Someone of distinction with a popular touch and first-hand knowledge of the media would fit the bill. The Leveson Inquiry, which gave aggrieved parties a chance to present their case publicly, often for the first time, has undoubtedly created an appetite for more.
Speed, substance and credibility are of the essence. A plan that met all these requirements might just convince a sufficient number of MPs that legislation would be needlessly divisive and a waste of their time. They are unlikely to be won over, however, unless the plan is capable of winning over a sceptical public, too. That is still where the greatest challenge lies.