We have come a long way in a year. Last January that sinister nexus of connections at the top of British politics involving the Murdochs, David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson was still in place and functioning fully, and the Murdochs were on course for their Sky TV buyout.
Last January the overwhelming majority of the national press was still studiously ignoring the fizzing fuse of the phone-hacking scandal, pretending to their millions of readers that nothing serious had gone wrong in their industry.
And last January the same papers were busy heaping lies and innuendo upon the entirely innocent Christopher Jefferies in a brutal, feckless manner they had come to regard as their right. Jefferies was only the latest in a long line of such victims, ordinary people who at best might long afterwards have a day in court, winning cheap damages and a modest apology on an inside page.
For the press, all this was normal. Proprietors, editors and journalists were used to wielding great power, whether it be influence over policy and legislation, the trashing of reputations and wrecking of lives, or the ability to conceal important information from the public. They had precious little experience of being accountable for such power.
And that is another thing that was in place last January: the fig-leaf of the Press Complaints Commission, for years routinely presented to the public as a stern regulator and guarantor of standards in the industry, but in reality the feeblest possible check on press behaviour.
Power corrupts, and these papers had become, in a variety of ways, corrupt. As 2011 ends, their corruption is being exposed as never before at the Leveson inquiry. Most dramatically, they have been unable to prevent us from knowing about this exposure, unable to exploit their traditional powers to hide unattractive truths from their readers. Those truths now routinely escape into the world through broadcast news and online, and the papers themselves have often been shamed into reporting some of them.
Predictably, they do not like this. Papers which often lied to their readers, explicitly or by omission, present themselves now as the sacred vessels of freedom of expression. Papers accustomed to running damaging stories about people without ever quoting a named source are now desperately quoting Milton, Wilkes, Cobbett and Mill in the attempt to redeem their own reputations.
Papers which themselves were great powers in the land, close bedfellows to politicians, to finance and industry, and which at the same time so often acted as the policemen of social conformity, try to persuade us now that they are outside the system, a vital check on the establishment. They tell us we need a raucous, troublemaking press to keep society healthy yet the last thing they want is a raucous, troublemaking public inquiry that might make them healthy.
We certainly need the press. We need challenging journalism. We need diversity of opinion, readily available to the public through diverse channels. We need a clear recognition that journalism will always cause hurt and anger and will always make some mistakes. And we need this public inquiry to ensure that we can have all of those things.
As 2012 begins we can wonder at how much has changed in one year and we can consider how much might change in another. We may, if the right people hold their nerve, see a report which lays before the public what has been good about journalism and the press and what has been bad, and which sets out to protect and nurture the former while bearing down on the latter.
We may see a new system of independent and meaningful press regulation which exists at arm’s length both from the industry and from government, and which has the authority to investigate and sanction serious or systemic press abuses.
We may see new measures to foster journalism that is conducted in the public interest, including new defences in law. We may see recommendations that have nothing to do with regulation or the law, but which, if embraced by managements and journalists, would alter newsroom cultures in ways that would protect the innocent.
It certainly won’t be an easy or quiet year. Powerful, rich vested interests are threatened here. These newspapers, as others have noted, are like guests at a dinner party who speak only through megaphones. Among their powers, in the past, has been the power to drown out alternative voices and opinions.
If we can maintain a dialogue despite them in 2012 we can have a better press in which real journalism can thrive.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off (www.hackinginquiry.org). He tweets at @BrianCathcart