Leading article: Press regulation must not mean strangulation

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Having accepted as part of the exercise in political damage limitation that an inquiry, or two, should be held into press phone hacking and related matters, the Prime Minister has moved with dispatch to define the terms and appoint the judge who will oversee it. Lord Justice Leveson will have the power to call proprietors, editors, politicians and senior police officers, who will be required to give evidence under oath.

These powers, and the scope of the inquiry, appear to give the sharpest critics of the media everything they sought. Milly Dowler's parents, whose agonies summed up the immorality, as well as the illegality, of alleged phone-hacking by the News of the World, expressed themselves satisfied. If they are satisfied, then public anger should be assuaged, too.

This does not mean, however, that there are no grounds for concern. The inquiry will be held in two parts, a division necessitated by the fact that police investigations still have far to go. This is possibly the only way of reconciling the public clamour for urgency with what could be protracted police procedures. The risk, though, is of a process that rivals the 12-year Bloody Sunday inquiry in its duration, or abandons some of the more sensitive aspects, having to do with the police and corporate governance at News International.

The breadth of the first part of the inquiry – which will consider the press, with a view to making recommendations for a new regulatory regime – also holds risks. The first is that the focus becomes blurred. The second is that the press and its activities are viewed disproportionately through the prism of the current outcry. The independence, energy and irreverence of the British press are qualities that must on no account be smothered in an overzealous desire to eradicate practices that are already punishable in a court of law.

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