After an inquiry into press intrusion lasting more than year, Lord Justice Leveson today delivered a damning verdict on decades of “outrageous” behaviour by newspapers.
The Appeal Court judge called for the establishment of a muscular new independent regulatory body, backed by legislation, with the power to require prominent apologies and impose fines of as much as £1 million.
The recommendations exposed deep divisions within the coalition Government.
Prime Minister David Cameron voiced “serious concerns and misgivings” about legislative action, and said the press should be given “a limited period of time” to show it could get its house in order.
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he believed Leveson’s model could be “proportionate and workable” and insisted Parliament should push ahead “without delay”.
Labour leader Ed Miliband urged MPs to “have faith” in Leveson and said he would move for a vote in the Commons by the end of January to approve Leveson’s proposals in principle, with the aim of getting the new system in place by 2015.
As cross-party talks got under way this evening, the prospect of the consensus sought by Mr Cameron looked distant.
Labour claimed a concession after the PM said he would ask the Department of Culture to do some work on a draft bill to implement Leveson, but Downing Street insisted Mr Cameron had not “given an inch” and expected the exercise to make clear how complicated and far-reaching any new law would be.
Lord Justice Leveson’s 16-month inquiry was prompted by the disclosure that News of the World journalists hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and his 2,400-page report pulled no punches in condemning the behaviour of elements within the newspaper industry.
The press had repeatedly acted as if its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”, he said.
He left no doubt that the existing model of voluntary self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission had failed, and rejected proposals for a beefed-up regulator put forward by industry figures.
To ensure public confidence in a new regulatory body, its board should include no serving editors, MPs or ministers and should have a majority of members with no industry links, he said.
And crucially, he said that the body should be given legal under-pinning, with statutory regulator Ofcom given the responsibility of certifying it complies with legislation.
Publications which refuse to take part in the voluntary scheme could be subjected to compulsory regulation by Ofcom, he suggested.
Victims of press intrusion broadly welcomed Leveson’s proposals, and voiced dismay at Mr Cameron’s stance.
Solicitor Mark Lewis, who represents the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, said the PM had failed the victims of phone hacking.
“Cautious optimism lasted for about 45 minutes and then the Prime Minister spoke and said he is not going to implement a report that he instigated,” he said.
Kate McCann – the mother of missing girl Madeleine – said she hoped the PM and other party leaders would “embrace the report and act swiftly to ensure activation of Lord Leveson’s recommendations within an acceptable and clearly defined time-scale”.
And former TV presenter Anne Diamond said Leveson had come up with “a really good workable solution”, telling BBC Radio 4’s PM: “It is appalling that apparently the PM isn’t taking that much notice of it, and is going to kick it into the long grass.”
Leveson heavily criticised politicians for becoming too cosy with the media, but cleared Mr Cameron of doing a “deal” with Rupert Murdoch’s News International of policy favours in return for positive coverage. And he said there was no credible evidence that Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt was biased in favour of Murdoch over his bid to take over BSkyB, though he failed properly to supervise an adviser who got too close to lobbyists.
The judge blamed a “series of poor decisions, poorly executed” by the Metropolitan Police for contributing to perceptions that officers were initially reluctant to investigate phone-hacking. But he said he had seen no reason to doubt the integrity of the police and senior officers concerned.
Presenting his report, Lord Justice Leveson insisted that what he was recommending did not amount to statutory regulation of the press.
“What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership,” he said.
Highlighting the Dowler and McCann cases, Lord Justice Leveson said: “There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected (perhaps in a way that can never be remedied) all the while heedless of the public interest.”
At the same time, he said that celebrities were treated as “fair game” with little, if any, entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity, whether or not there is a true public interest in knowing how they spend their lives“.
In a statement to the House of Commons shortly after publication of the report, Mr Cameron told MPs he welcomed plans for a new self-regulatory body, and said the onus was on the press to implement them.
But he voiced “serious concerns and misgivings” about Lord Justice Leveson’s judgment that the scheme required legislative underpinning to command public confidence.
“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press,” said the Prime Minister. “In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
For the first time since the creation of the coalition in 2010, Mr Clegg made a separate statement in the Commons to set out his differences with the PM, telling MPs: “We need to get on with this without delay. We owe it to the victims of these scandals, who have already waited too long for us to do the right thing. Too long for an independent press watchdog in which they can put their trust. I am determined we do not make them wait any more.”
Downing Street insisted that Mr Cameron was not absolutely ruling out legislation, but wanted to test whether it was necessary.
And Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: “The Prime Minister didn’t reject it. He said we should be very, very careful before we go down that route.”