â€¢ Privacy curbs jeopardising mass-market papers
â€¢ At least two nationals will 'hit the wall'
â€¢ Media commentators 'undermining' industry
â€¢ Full corrected transcript of Dacre's speech
Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has launched an attack on High Court judge Mr Justice Eady - accusing him of using the Human Rights Act to "bring in a privacy law by the back door".
In a no-holds-barred opening lecture at the Society of Editors conference in Bristol on Sunday night, Dacre said Mr Justice Eady had been given a "virtual monopoly" and said his rulings against the press jeopardised its role in holding people to account.
"The British press is having a privacy law imposed on it, which is, I would argue, undermining the ability of mass circulation newspapers to sell newspapers in an ever more difficult market," Dacre said.
"The law is not coming from Parliament - no, that would smack of democracy - but from the arrogant and amoral judgements, words I use very deliberately, of one man.
"I am referring, of course, to Justice David Eady who has, again and again, under the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act, found against newspapers and their age-old freedom to expose the moral shortcomings of those in high places."
In July this year, Eady ordered that the News of the World pay £60,000 in damages to motorsport boss Max Mosley after it ran a front-page splash about his "sick" orgy with five prostitutes.
Dacre later added: "What is most worrying about Justice Eady's decisions is that he is ruling that - when it comes to morality - the law in Britain is now effectively neutral, which is why I accuse him, in his judgments, of being 'amoral'."
"Surely the greatest scandal is that while London boasts scores of eminent judges, one man is given a virtual monopoly of all cases against the media enabling him to bring in a privacy law by the back door," Dacre said.
"If Gordon Brown wanted to force a privacy law, he would have to set out a bill, arguing his case in both Houses of Parliament, withstand public scrutiny and win a series of votes.
"Now, thanks to the wretched Human Rights Act, one judge with a subjective and highly relativist moral sense can do the same with a stroke of his pen."
Papers will 'hit the wall'
The Associated Newspapers editor-in-chief, who turns 60 later this month, warned that a number of newspapers could fold if their ability to report freely was undermined.â€¨
"Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour. For hundreds of years, the press has played a vital role in that process," Dacre said.
"If mass circulation newspapers don't have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.
"If the News of the Word can't carry such stories as the Mosley orgy, then it, and its political reportage and analysis, will eventually probably die."
The regional press, Dacre said, seemed "locked in a seemingly inexorable downward spiral". He added: "I would be surprised if at least two national dailies and two Sundays don't change hands or go to the wall in the not too distant future."
In a revealing example of the Mail editor's political influence, Dacre said he had dinner with prime minister Gordon Brown 18 months ago - joined by then News International boss Les Hinton and Murdoch MacLennan from the Telegraph Media Group - to discuss the "very serious threats" faced by the newspaper industry.
Dacre warned Brown of the "ruinous" implications of today's no-win no-fee culture, proposals to water down the Freedom of Information Act and a proposed clampdown on reporting inquests.
Since then, the FoI reform has been scrapped, the coroner's changes have been shelved and Dacre said justice secretary Jack Straw was due to announce caps on lawyers' fees in the coming months.
He said Brown was "hugely sympathetic to the industry's case and promised to do what he could to help", and praised him for being "totally true to his word".
â€¨"Whatever our individual newspapers' views are of the Prime Minister – and the Mail is pretty tough on him - we should, as an industry, acknowledge that, to date, he has been a great friend of press freedom," he said.
Dacre criticised what he said was the newspaper industry's "self-loathing" and media commentator's attempts to "undermine" the trade.
"Fair enough. Newspapers should be consistently criticised. If you dish it, you should take it with bells on," he said.
"The problem, I would argue tonight, is that this unrelenting and corrosive drip, drip, drip of criticism of the press does huge harm to our standing in the eyes of the politicians, the regulators, the judges, the public and, most pertinently, I suspect, to newspaper sales.
"â€¨â€¨He urged the industry to "remain optimistic" - and called on politicians and regulators to relax competition rules preventing the merger of newspaper groups.
"Papers have been written off many times in the past and I promise you the appetite for information, news, analysis, comment, gossip, celebrities, romance, lifestyle, escapism and scandal is as old as time itself," Dacre said.
"The politicians and regulators, too, are going to have to think the unthinkable. They are going to have to allow previously outlawed mergers – particularly in the provincial and the local press arenas.
"When local papers are fighting for their very existence in a market already crowded by TV, radio, internet sites, search engines and, of course, an unstoppable BBC, it's crazy to regard the ownership of a few local papers as a monopolistic threat to diversity."
He added: "If the local press fails to survive – and no-one has really thought this through - who is going to cover the magistrates and coroners courts and the local council meetings that are the corner stones of local democracy?
"Let's be proud of our industry. Let's stop this drip, drip, drip of self-denigration."