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.
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Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron in response to the phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's now- shuttered News of the World tabloid where journalists spied, bribed, and hacked their way to sensational stories.
"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 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.
What Leveson made of all this, what his recommendations will be, and how the press and politicians will react have all been a matter of intense speculation since the inquiry was ordered in July of last year.
The battle lines are being drawn as proprietors and reform campaigners prepare to fight their corner. 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 dictator Bashar Assad, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. "Do you?"