Newspapers around the world have been following Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of Britain's press with close interest. While few papers in other places - and none here - have committed the criminal intrusions of some in Britain, different concerns have prompted similar judicial exercises in Australia and New Zealand.
Here, a Law Commission inquiry was initiated by the difficulty of enforcing court orders on websites that have no punishable entity. The commission's draft solution would recognise in law a form of independent regulation of all news media and offer the law's privileges as inducements to submit to the statutory regime.
The Leveson report has essentially made that same proposal to British newspapers, with a predictable response. Nearly all have recoiled at the idea of answering to a regulator set up by act of Parliament. Everyone who values press freedom understands the importance of its independence of political power, including those handling these inquiries.
Lord Justice Leveson and the Law Commission have each tried to devise a way that a regulatory body might be set up that would be independent not only of Parliament but also of news media. The Law Commission has suggested it be appointed by an electoral college but has not explained who would appoint the college. The Leveson proposal is more subtle.
It suggests legislation that would not set up a regulatory body but rather, it would define what such a body must look like and what it must do if those who voluntarily submit to its jurisdiction are to qualify for the legal benefits the same statute would provide. These benefits could be a lesser liability for costs and damages in the event that the newspaper faces civil suits for breaches of privacy or harassment, for example. It might also offer a less costly alternative for the resolution of defamation claims. That is a carrot that newspapers would find hard to resist.
If Lord Justice Leveson had proposed nothing more, his report might have had a better press reception. Unfortunately, he went further, proposing that if newspapers do not produce a body that meets Parliament's prescription, or any refused to submit to it, a "backstop" regulator would be forced on them. He nominated Ofcom, Britain's regulator of broadcasting and telecommunications. He stressed he did not want this to happen but felt he owed British public opinion something stronger in the event that the press did not take up the "voluntary" offer.
Little wonder that a fiercely independent industry would react as it largely has to an invitation delivered with a gun to its head. There seems no majority at Westminster either for legislation that would compromise three centuries of free speech.
It needs to be remembered that newspapers operate under the general law. The breaches that prompted the Leveson inquiry were illegal and they are being punished. What is proposed now is an extension of the law to the ethics and standards that newspapers have set for themselves, individually and collectively.
They have set the standards they believe readers expect and collectively they have appointed a body to hear readers' complaints. It is in the industry's commercial interest as well as the public interest that this "self-regulation" is effective and seen to be so. It can always be improved, but not by an act of Parliament.