A major inquiry called for laws to underpin a tougher watchdog for Britain’s “outrageous” newspapers in a verdict that sets up prime minister David Cameron for a bruising political battle.
Senior judge Brian Leveson, who led an eight- month inquiry sparked by the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, said there should be an independent self-regulatory body backed by legislation.
But Cameron said he had “serious concerns and misgivings” about any statutory change, setting him at odds with not only his junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, but also the Labour opposition and many hacking victims.
Lord Justice Leveson said in his report that the British newspaper industry had for decades “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people” and “acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.”
He said while the press served the country “very well for the vast majority of the time”, its behaviour “at times, can only be described as outrageous.”
The prime minister set up the Leveson inquiry in Jul 2011 in the wake of revelations that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler as well as dozens of public figures.
Murdoch was forced to shut down the 168-year-old newspaper over the scandal.
Victims of phone hacking and press harassment welcomed the inquiry’s findings and called on Cameron to implement them in full. But Cameron told parliament that while he backed the creation of a new newspaper regulator, he feared that bringing in new laws risked curbing the freedom of the British press.
“I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation,” he said. “We will have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land... we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg took the unusual step of making a separate statement after Cameron’s, under-scoring deep divisions in the coalition that took office in May 2010.
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband said Leveson’s proposals, which are now likely to go to a vote in the House of Commons, should be implemented and done so by 2015. “No more last chance saloons,” he said, referring to repeated warnings over the last two decades that the British press had had enough warnings.
“On behalf of every decent British citizen who wants protection for people like the Dowlers who wants a truly free press, a press that can expose abuse of power without abusing its own: we must act,” Miliband said.
Parliament will debate Leveson’s recommendations next Monday.
The British press — already suffering huge losses of readers and advertisers — currently regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors. Its critics say it is toothless.
Leveson said in his report that a new watchdog would have independent members, except for one editor. It would have the power to fine offenders up to £1m (€1.2m) and to order the publication of apologies and corrections.
Those powers would be backed by new laws, he said. He summed up his plans as “independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process”.
Leveson also criticised the relationship between the press, police and politicians, which he said was “too close”. Contacts between them should be recorded, he said.
Hacked Off, a victims’ campaign group featuring Hollywood actor Hugh Grant, said the inquiry’s proposals were “reasonable and proportionate”.
Over eight months of hearings, the inquiry heard from victims of press intrusion including actors and celebrities, and politicians, journalists, police, and newspaper executives.
Their testimony revealed embarrassing text messages from Cameron to Murdoch newspaper executive Rebekah Brooks, left a minister fighting for his career, and shone a light on the sometimes murky workings of the British establishment.
Police have arrested dozens of people under three linked investigations into alleged crimes by newspapers.
Brooks, the former head of Murdoch’s News International, and Andy Coulson, Cameron’s former spokesman, appeared in court yesterday on bribery charges, just hours ahead of the report’s publication.
Opposing a legal foundation to an independent press regulator will delight the British media ahead of the 2015 election but will deepen a divide in Cameron’s coalition government and within his own party.
“The ball moves back into the politicians’ court: they must now decide who guards the guardians,” Leveson told a news conference in Westminster.
Clegg said legislation was the “only way” to ensure the independence of the regulator. With cross-party talks set to begin on how to proceed, deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman commended Clegg’s “excellent” statement.
But she accused Cameron of a “craven acceptance of the status quo”. “If the prime minister does not think again, he will have surrendered to powerful press interests and betrayed the victims.”
Clegg said: “A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or free to abuse grieving families.”
Calling for a “better balance”, Clegg said the report’s recommendations were “proportionate and workable”.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
* The report states there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories in the industry, “almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected”. nIt points to evidence that journalists have targeted actors, footballers, writers, and pop stars in a way that affected them and their families negatively, “whether or not there is a true public interest in knowing how they spend their lives”. nIt describes a willingness to use covert surveillance, deception and misrepresentation in circumstances where it is difficult to see any public interest justification. nA persistence to investigate stories has sometimes been pursued “to the point of vice, where it has become (or, at the very least, verges on) harassment”. nThe existing watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has failed and a new body is required. nThe proposal for a more robust version of the PCC was rejected. Instead, it should be replaced by a self-regulatory body whose chairman and board members are appointed in a transparent way. nLegislation is essential to underpin the new body.
* The report stresses it is not proposing statutory regulation of the press. The proposed legislation would not give any rights to parliament, government, or any other body to prevent newspapers from publishing anything they wanted.
THE PRESS AND POLITICIANS
* The report states there is evidence that over the last 30-35 years and longer, political parties have had or developed too close a relationship with the press. nIt cites a bid by News Corp to increase its holding in broadcaster BSkyB as an example — including the roles of Jeremy Hunt, who as the government’s then culture secretary reviewed the bid that failed last year, his special adviser Adam Smith and News Corp’s professional lobbyist Frédéric Michel. nThe report concludes that positive steps are needed to address “a genuine and legitimate problem of public perception, and hence of trust and confidence”. * Police failed to probe adequately allegations of phone-hacking, adopting a “defensive mindset” which led to “a series of poor decisions, poorly executed”. nIt is important for the government to find a way of ensuring there is a mechanism for protecting media plurality.
* It states there are few existing mechanisms to protect plurality and no option for the government or regulators to step in to protect plurality if it is threatened by organic change in the market.
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