An anxious time for the UK's newspaper bosses

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Image caption Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has warned of an "anxious time" for journalism

It's an anxious - and potentially momentous - time for Britain's newspaper editors, as they assemble for the annual Society of Editors conference in Runnymede in Surrey.

Figures published on Friday showed double-digit falls in circulation for The Independent (down 26% year on year), the Guardian (down 16%), the Financial Times (down 14%) and the Times, which has slipped by 13%.

On Monday, Lord Justice Leveson begins his Government inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, in response to the News of the World phonehacking scandal, which continues to generate shocking headlines.

Even James Murdoch admitted, in evidence to MPs, that last week's revelation that his company had hired a private detective to spy on lawyers representing the victims of phone-hacking and their families was "appalling" and "unacceptable".

After the failure of the Press Complaints Commission to tackle the phonehacking scandal, the future of press regulation is up for debate.

And, in the wake of the super-injunctions rows earlier this year and the award of privacy damages to the former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley by the British and European courts, legislation on defamation, libel and privacy is also in the spotlight.

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian - which exposed the phonehacking scandal in the face of furious and sustained denials from News International - says it's an "incredibly anxious time for journalism, with even the most powerful and professional newspapers clinging on to financial viability".

Little wonder that the Runnymede editors' conference - under the title "Magna Carta II: a modern Media Charter" - is fielding a stellar line-up of editors, politicians, regulators and lawyers to discuss these critical issues.

James Murdoch will not be at the conference, but two of his inquisitors will - John Whittingdale and Tom Watson, from the Commons culture, media and sport committee.

So will two Cabinet Ministers - Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and the Attorney General Dominic Grieve - as well as the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission Lord Hunt, the chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten, and the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC.

Editors speaking include James Harding of The Times, Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian, Chris Blackhurst of the Independent, and the former News of the World editor Colin Myler.

Phonehacking victims' lawyers Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris will also be in attendance.

Rusbridger says this is a crucial time for the press.

"The coincidence of the Leveson Inquiry with a new defamation bill gives the press a good opportunity to dovetail new proposals on regulation with their widely-shared frustrations at the cost of fighting legal cases."

Delivering the Orwell Lecture last week, he said most journalists didn't want the courts, the state, Europe or MPs to regulate the press.

He proposed that there should be a new independent regulator with teeth, which could also offer a "one-stop-shop" mediation service for libel and privacy cases, as an alternative to the courts.

He suggested the new body could be entitled the Press, Standards and Mediation Commission and replace the existing Press Complaints Commission.

Rusbridger also supported a suggestion by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, for a press ombudsman who could investigate serious lapses of standards on a "polluter pays" basis.

The debate has started - but with inquiries by the police, judges and MPs all still ongoing, it has only just begun.

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