Form an orderly queue there, please. Editors are jostling to be the first in the clink if the government moves to introduce press regulation. Already, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has said he will not comply with any such statutory body, and is prepared to suffer the consequences – which could mean spending a few months at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Other hacks are promising to desert print for the internet where it is thought the Leveson Laws will not apply.
They're all assuming that Lord Justice Leveson will today end Britain's tradition of press freedom, which dates from 1695 when state licensing of newspapers was abolished. And they are almost certainly right. Lord Leveson is not bonkers. His report, published today, will be cogent and reasonable and will almost certainly call for a new independent system of press regulation, backed up by new laws, which the Prime Minister will find very difficult to reject.
During his lengthy inquiry, the Law Lord made it clear that the present system of self-regulation through the industry body, the Press Complaints Commission, is broken and that public confidence can only be restored by independent regulation of the press. All of the press. Opinion polls show overwhelming public support for regulation. This time it really is closing time in the last chance saloon – and PC plod is about come and chuck out the barflies.
Now as working hack, I find talk of statutory controls deeply troubling. Not least because it seems to be Labour and Liberal spokespeople who are mustard-keen on press regulation, while it is the Tory ministers like Michael Gove and press barons like Rupert Murdoch who are standing for the principle of a free press. With friends like these... It is disturbing to see the Guardian newspaper, which broke the Milly Dowling story, and the National Union of Journalists arguing for a form of state regulation of newspapers.
Regulation can only mean, surely, that a new body - admittedly at arms length - will be empowered, effectively, to license publications, and possibly even license journalists. Certainly the new regulatory body would be in a position to levy fines and enforce the right of reply, and it will be a court of final appeal for people who feel they have been hard done by in the press. Perhaps, indeed, the regulator will have to be consulted when a newspaper proposes to break the law, or bend the law, in the public interest. I'm thinking about use of covert recordings or phone hacking to expose fraud, wrong doing and illegality. To catch a thief you set a thief.