The Government and the press are locked in a stand-off over new regulation. Western Morning News Editor Bill Martin fears for the future of 300 years of newspaper freedom.
The most frightening thing of all is that hardly anyone will notice.
In the middle of half-term, the day before Halloween and with bonfire building going on aplenty, a deal was struck this week that places one of Britain's greatest freedoms at risk.
For more than 300 years this country's press has enjoyed a freedom that has been the envy of the world. It has been free to publish what it wishes and all of us have been free to read it.
But at a behind-closed-doors meeting at Buckingham Palace this week, Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg and his Privy Council colleagues put their names to a new Royal Charter that establishes a new Government-backed press watchdog. It was later signed by the Queen.
And so the country is now lumbered with a voluntary press regulation system that the press does not voluntarily agree with. In fact it disagrees so much, the press sought a High Court injunction to block the Privy Council by claiming it acted "unfairly and unlawfully" in rejecting the newspapers' own proposals for a rival charter.
Are you still with us? Yes the newspaper industry – fully accepting of the need for a new regulatory system – has come up with its own plan and pretty much to a man is insisting it will not sign up to the Government's.
It has all the hallmarks of a right royal mess, and it is impossible to see how matters will improve. In case you have forgotten, all this is in response to the Government-commissioned Leveson inquiry which David Cameron ordered following revelations that missing Millie Dowler's phone had been hacked by tabloid reporters.
After a painfully protracted inquiry – featuring painfully protracted evidence from "victims" such as Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan – Lord Justice Leveson published his report in which he found that, in some instances, politicians and press had become too close, and that press behaviour at times had become outrageous. He was right, sometimes it had.
Lord Leveson also, refreshingly, made a clear distinction between the national tabloids and the local press. He found that regional newspapers, like the Western Morning News, made a contribution to their communities that was "truly without parallel".
In fact, he said: "Although accuracy and similar complaints have been made against local newspapers, the criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press that have been raised in this inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary they have been much praised."
He was right about this too.
How ironic that the establishment of the Royal Charter this week has gone on very much in the background. All the major headlines have been focussing on the trial of former News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. "Hacking: tabloids' 'decade of deceit'" screamed the Daily Telegraph front page. The trial – which is due to last six weeks – has already featured allegations of bribery, affairs, and collusion, and is due to feature star names like Kate Moss, Jude Law, Joanna Lumley, Will Young and Sienna Miller. It is sure to be headline-grabbing stuff – and will no doubt paint the British press a pretty grubby colour.
How sad that the alleged actions of a few might make it even easier for people to forget quite how lucky we are to have the free press that we do – or have had – in this country.
There are approximately 1,200 daily and weekly newspapers in the UK, the majority of them local or regional. They are read either in print or online by tens of millions of us. The majority were fully signed up to the PCC's Code of Practice and operated within it. So for the majority of the press, self-regulation has been a real success.
There is more irony in that the story that led to the setting up of the inquiry – the News of the World phone hacking scandal – was the direct result of Britain having a rigorous and unfettered free press. The Guardian's investigation of the scandal was a long-running, brave and ultimately important piece of journalism. Could it be that such a brilliant piece of investigation and publishing has led to a Britain where politicians can control the press?
Under the terms of the new charter, if two-thirds of parliament wishes to amend it at some future date then it can. Statutory-based regulation of the press will not immediately result in state control of the press, but it could.
All this in a country supposed to be the home of justice, of free speech and the rule of law. And all this in a country whose newspaper headlines have been dominated by reports of a trial over allegations of serious newspaper misbehaviour.
Britain already had laws to regulate the behaviour of the press. It has not always had the willingness to use them. So now we have a new regulator that the majority of the press will not co-operate with.
What happens next is unclear. But whatever it is has serious implications for freedom of speech.