LONDON - It's judgment day for Britain's press.
After nearly 18 months of damaging revelations about widespread media misconduct, the senior judge tapped to investigate the ethics and practices of some of the English-speaking world's most powerful newspapers will deliver his verdict next Thursday.
Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry was launched in response to the phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World where journalists routinely intercepted phone messages to obtain sensational stories and allegedly engaged in computer hacking and bribery, too.
"The reputation of the British press is as low as it's possible to be," said James Curran, a professor of communications who has written extensively on the history and politics of the media. "For the first time, there is a possibility of modest reform."
A year's worth of hearings exposed a host of shady journalistic practices, from blackmail and stalking to trafficking in stolen medical records and other private information.
Celebrities, crime victims, and the falsely accused described feeling helpless as reporters ground their privacy and reputation to bits, while some of the country's most senior police officers — who should have been investigating the wrongdoing — were described glugging champagne at intimate dinners with those who would later become the scandal's chief suspects.
Leveson's recommendations and reaction from the press and politicians have been a matter of intense speculation since the inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron in July, 2011. Leveson could recommend new rules for journalists, suggest a new press watchdog, or simply endorse the status quo. In the case of new regulations, lawmakers would have to sign off on his recommendations before they became law.
There have been scattered hints as to Leveson's approach. He and inquiry lawyer Robert Jay mostly eschewed the inquisitorial approach during hearings, often politely asking various witnesses for their thoughts on whether the press should be reformed and how to do it.
But the genial atmosphere of the hearings may mask a trenchant, industry-shaking verdict.
In August, the judge sent inquiry participants a sheaf of documents laying out his potential criticisms, a move intended to enable those targeted to have a final say before the inquiry's recommendations are released. They are meant to be confidential, but Chris Blackhurst, the editor of Britain's Independent newspaper, was so shocked by the tone that he broke with protocol to go public with his concerns.
"It is a damning indictment of my industry," he told the BBC. "The best way I can describe it is that he's loading a gun, and that this document — well over 100 pages — is all the ammunition. And believe you me, there's plenty of ammunition. You read it and you just gulp."
Paul Connew, a tabloid editor-turned-public relations expert who has followed the scandal closely, said he is worried, too. He predicted that Leveson would propose some kind of "light touch" regulation, for example one that would see publishers submit to the rulings of an independent regulator. But Connew — who counts himself among the thousands of phone hacking victims — said that the moment government becomes involved in setting rules for journalists, liberty suffers.
"It's a cliche, but it's the first step down a slippery slope," he said. "I'm not saying you're going to overturn 300 years of press freedom in one fell swoop, but you're removing one of the foundation stones."
The battle lines are being drawn as proprietors and reform campaigners prepare to fight. On Wednesday, victims of press abuse met with Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to argue their case for greater protection against unscrupulous journalists. On Thursday, the Free Speech Network, a press lobbying group, unleashed a publicity campaign against any attempt at state-backed regulation.
The group's ad in Murdoch's The Sun newspaper was particularly stark:
"These people believe in state control of the press," the ad said over pictures of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. "Do you?"
Curran said the warnings were overwrought. He explained that a regulator — were one to actually be set up — would probably be a body "independent of government and independent of the press which will have some backup powers. That's a far cry from Zimbabwe."
The Leveson Inquiry: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter