UK

The long road to the Leveson Inquiry outcome

Lord Justice Leveson
Image caption Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry is sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London

The man in charge of the inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media faces a deadline of his own.

Lord Justice Leveson, who is due to resume his inquiry after the Christmas break on Monday, is planning to publish his first report in September.

That leaves him just nine months to conclude a sweeping review of the press.

First, national newspaper editors and their staff will give evidence - like all the witnesses - under oath.

Until now their ability to respond to criticism has been limited.

Inside the inquiry room barristers working for the papers have had little chance to cross examine witnesses.

Outside, their coverage has been closely scrutinised.

When the Mail on Sunday accused Hugh Grant of making "mendacious smears" against the paper it was obliged, in the end, to remove the comment from the Mail website.

Now the editors of the Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the FT, the Independent, the Daily Star, Mail on Sunday and the Daily Express will be among those getting a say. The editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre will give his evidence in February.

Regulation

The editors will have to make the case not just for the quality of their journalism but for the state of their industry.

The prognosis so far has been bleak.

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has described an "existential threat to the idea and sustainability of journalism itself".

In the words of the former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis: "The chosen newspaper of this country is the Sun and the red tops. The Great British population do not want the broadsheets."

So Lord Justice Leveson has to consider how to deal with abuses by the press without regulating away what remains of its profitability.

Something like three quarters of the evidence is yet to come.

Before the end of March the inquiry will also hear about the relationship between police and journalists. After that it will look at how press and politicians interact. Then it will consider the details of regulation.

Behind the scenes the inquiry's lawyers are sifting hundreds of submissions. Ninety three alleged victims of press mistreatment alone have been in touch.

There are limits to this work. Lord Justice Leveson has said he will not make "findings of fact" about the behaviour of any individual newspaper or editor in any particular case in his report.

'More work'

But it would be naive to imagine this is a story about one man's final conclusions. The impact of the Leveson Inquiry will be found not just in his written recommendations, but in the hearings themselves.

There was little doubt - for example - that when Lord Justice Leveson called three of the reporters who covered the disappearance of Madeleine McCann for the Daily Express he intended to find out how their stories were written.

The behaviour of this title in this case may not appear in his report, but it was explored at length in front of the television cameras.

He has also made it clear that he wants to get to the bottom of who was responsible for deleting the voicemail messages of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, deletions that led her parents to wrongly believe she was alive.

The Metropolitan Police have promised to provide more information to the inquiry on that this month.

Once this report delivered, there will more work to come.

After criminal proceedings are complete Lord Justice Leveson will start examining the extent of unlawful or improper conduct at News International or other newspapers.

Should he favour changes requiring a change in the law, the government and ultimately Parliament will have to embrace or reject his conclusions.

While Lord Justice Leveson is determined to complete the current part of his inquiry by the autumn, the final consequences of his deliberations may not become apparent until much later.

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