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Damn the press? Check out the alternative ...

NEXT Thursday, just after lunch, within whining distance of the Palace of Westminster, Lord Justice Leveson will give the British press a sound thrashing.

Former News International executive Rebekah Brooks
Former News International executive Rebekah Brooks

No bet is safer. The appeal judge will allow no appeals. Beyond question, we're going to catch it. All that remains in doubt is the nature of the punishment.

Fair enough, most will say. Alongside the pomposity and self-regard of British journalism – free speech, liberty, democracy, all of that – sits a record of hypocrisy, venality and sheer cruelty unmatched in the Western world. The scandals surrounding News International surprised even ourselves. Just when you thought the bottom had been plumbed, new depths were revealed.

I say "we" with a certain hesitation. Most of us in this trade wouldn't know how to begin to bribe a copper (allegedly), hack a phone (allegedly), blag a bank account (allegedly) or strike disreputable deals (allegedly) with a political party. Most of us, suckers for the pompous stuff, thought it was part of the job to expose and condemn such things. However, the distinction between types of journalism isn't available to Leveson.

Since last July it has been his job to investigate the "culture, practices and ethics of the press", report back, and suggest remedies for certain self-evident failures. He has to answer those who believe that self-regulation has failed, satisfy those who argue that a statutory regulator is required, respond to those who claim that the industry can still police itself, and assure the public that feral hacks will never again prey on the innocent and the vulnerable. Then he has to get his report past the politicians.

That ought to be the interesting part. These individuals are the guardians of the public interest, but they are not without interests of their own. Some of them, quick enough to turn lyrical on the topic of free speech, would happily regulate journalism to death. They don't like us much. Since the law was broken – or has everyone forgotten? – in order to expose the MPs' expenses scandal, some of them have been itching for Leveson to impose "responsible" journalism.

On the other hand, most of those politicians belong to parties whose attitude towards press moguls would give fawning a bad name. Labour and Tories alike found it necessary to force down the champagne at Rupert Murdoch's parties. If they say they have changed their ways, don't believe a word of it.

David Cameron wound up sending text-message kisses to Rebekah Brooks, right, the former News International executive who now faces a rich assortment of criminal charges. Cameron only surpassed himself by giving a crucial Downing Street communications job to Andy Coulson, the former News Of The World editor who also stands accused of numerous serious crimes. The Tory Party do not wish to be known, of course, by the company they used to keep.

Yet such are the people, Cameron chief among them, who must pronounce on Leveson. The Prime Minister has said that he will accept the report if its recommendations are not "bonkers". He is also reported to be opposed to the "collective punishment" of the press, apparently believing that regional and local titles, as he styles them, remain both clean and important for democracy. If the alternative is a world dependent on vicious Twitter gossip passed off as news, Cameron might have a point.

The witch-hunt staged by a cybermob against the innocent Lord McAlpine is a handy case in point. It shows two things. First, that some members of the species are not to be trusted with mobile phones and opposable thumbs. Second, that if Leveson answers the demand to license and suppress journalism with statutory regulation, he will remove an essential counterweight to nonsense in an increasingly chaotic media world.

The difference would be this: those involved in the News Of The World scandal, from the top of the pile to the bottom, knew perfectly well that they were up to no good. They knew the rules and the law. That in turn points to the chief objection to anything Leveson is liable to propose. It wasn't "regulation" that was missing in the News International outrages. It was coppers on the job investigating prima facie evidence of serious crimes.

Contrast that with the McAlpine frenzy. Patently, those relaying the slurs against the peer had no idea that they were doing anything wrong. It was just gossip, cheap outrage, belief mistaken for knowledge, tittle-tattle passed around without the slightest thought for a man's life and reputation. It was also near-mediaeval behaviour following a pattern that is now becoming familiar. The same tweeting folk were no doubt suitably disgusted by the News Of The World revelations.

Some of those people, entranced by their electronic toys, will tell you that journalism, especially "dead tree" journalism, is a thing of the past. They prefer the citizen variety instead. It is, supposedly, "non-hierarchical", properly democratic, uncensored, owing nothing to any mogul, the perfection of free speech. Some of them spoke perfectly freely enough about McAlpine. They didn't think twice. Several didn't think once.

No-one expects Leveson to attack the freedom of the press. If anything, his report is liable to claim that it is protecting the newspaper industry from itself. After all, how could a responsible, honest journalist object to oversight from an independent regulator whose only concern is the public interest?

Let's attempt an answer. The BBC exists under an elaborate system of independent regulation. How has that been working out lately, in the contrasting episodes involving Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine? Has someone meanwhile managed to contrive a definition of the public interest and failed to let on? The Scottish Government recently agreed that communications between the royals and ministers should be kept secret. Why? Because disclosure would not be – but you guessed – "in the public interest".

Then there's the old question of independence and regulation. If Leveson proposes a regulator, who will make the appointment? The industry? Somehow I can't see the politicians or public applauding that idea. The politicians, then? They are always firmly in favour of independent thinking, are they not?

The scandals Leveson was asked to investigate fell squarely within the criminal law. The "ethics" at stake – another fine old word abused – became perverted because of a celebrity culture which does not, on the evidence, seem to appal the great British public. It has been said often enough, but it is worth repeating: the News of the World was one of the biggest-selling papers in the world. Tales obtained by allegedly criminal means were lapped up.

And what might Leveson, this distinguished judge, have to say about the press and criminal means? Let's guess that he won't favour the latter. But if some journalist had hacked Savile's phone, or tapped the mobiles of the gangs of men said to be grooming thousands of children across Britain, outrage over methods would have been muted. And the News Of The World, obnoxious and mired in trivia, did plenty of stories of that sort. And with precisely those methods.

The Screws is gone. Some hope the rest of the unloved press will follow. Leveson will no doubt help us on our way. But glance at the internet and social media. Ask what the difference is between free speech and a free-for-all.

Then be careful what you wish for.

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