LONDON » Britain’s unruly newspapers should be regulated by an independent body dominated by non-journalists with the power to levy steep fines for ethical lapses, a judge recommended today after a yearlong inquiry.
But Prime Minister David Cameron immediately expressed deep misgivings about a key recommendation in the 2,000-page report — that the new regulator be enshrined in law. Cameron said he was concerned about government interference in free speech.
"I’m proud of the fact that we’ve managed to survive hundreds of years without state regulation," he said.
The impasse left questions about the eventual impact of Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s sweeping probe of media ethics in Britain. The inquiry was triggered by a tabloid phone hacking scandal that expanded to engulf senior figures in politics, the police and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
The report pleased victims of tabloid intrusion but left editors worrying about creeping state control of the country’s fiercely independent press.
Leveson’s key recommendation was to create a new regulator for newspapers and their websites, which he said should be established in law to prevent more people from being hurt by the "outrageous" press behavior that had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people."
"The ball moves back into the politicians’ court: They must now decide who guards the guardians," he said.
Cameron, under intense pressure over an issue that has divided his own Conservative Party, welcomed Leveson’s proposal for a new regulator, saying "the status quo is not an option."
But the prime minister said asking legislators to enshrine it in law meant "crossing the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land."
"I believe that we should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press," Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons. "We should think very, very carefully before crossing this line."
Cameron instead called on the much-criticized British press to show it could control itself by implementing the judge’s proposals quickly without political involvement.
Leveson insisted that politicians and the government should play no role in regulating the press, which should be done by a new body with much stronger powers than the current Press Complaints Commission.
He said the new body should be composed of members of the public including former journalists and academics — but no more than one serving editor and no politicians. It should have the power to rule on complaints, demand prominent corrections in newspapers and to levy fines of up to $1.6 million, though it would have no power to prevent material from being published.
Membership would be voluntary, but newspapers would join in part to stave off expensive lawsuits — the regulator would handle complaints that now end up in court.
The proposal is similar to the system operating in Ireland, where a press council and ombudsman were set up in 2008 to make the print media more accountable.
Critics of the tabloid press generally backed Leveson’s findings.
"I welcome Lord Leveson’s report and hope it will mark the start of a new era for our press in which it treats those in the news responsibly, with care and consideration," said Kate McCann, who was the subject of intense press interest after her 3-year-old daughter Madeleine disappeared during a 2007 holiday in Portugal.
Brian Cathcart of the group Hacked Off, which campaigns for victims of press intrusion, said Leveson had produced "a workable, proportionate and reasonable solution to the problems of press abuse."
Cathcart called Cameron’s inability to accept its recommendations "unfortunate and regrettable."
Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry after revelations of illegal eavesdropping by Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid sparked a criminal investigation and a wave of public revulsion.
The furor erupted in 2011 when it was revealed that the News of the World had eavesdropped on the mobile phone voicemails of slain schoolgirl Milly Dowler while police were searching for the 13-year-old.
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper in July 2011. His U.K. newspaper company, News International, has paid millions in damages to dozens of hacking victims, and faces dozens more lawsuits from celebrities, politicians, athletes and crime victims whose voicemails were hacked in the paper’s quest for scoops.
News International chief executive Tom Mockridge said the company was "keen to play our full part, with others in our industry, in creating a new body that commands the confidence of the public."
"We believe that this can be achieved without statutory regulation — and welcome the prime minister’s rejection of that proposal," he added.
Leveson’s $6.4- million inquiry heard evidence from more than 300 witnesses over months of dramatic, sometimes comic and often poignant testimony. Witnesses ranged from celebrities such as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and actor Hugh Grant — who both complained of intrusive treatment — to the parents of Dowler, who described how learning that their daughter’s voicemail had been accessed had given them false hope that she was alive.
Leveson said the ongoing criminal investigation constrained him from accusing other newspapers of illegal behavior, but concluded there was a subculture of unethical behavior.
While many editors have denied knowing about phone hacking, Leveson said it "was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the ‘dark arts.’"
He said newspapers had been guilty of "recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause."
The hacking scandal has rocked Britain’s press, political and police establishments, who were seen to enjoy an often-cozy relationship in which drinks, dinners and sometimes money were traded for influence and information.
Several senior police officers resigned over the failure aggressively to pursue a 2007 investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World. But Leveson said "the inquiry has not unearthed extensive evidence of police corruption."
Leveson said over the past three decades, political parties "have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest."
Those relationships reached right up to the prime minister’s door. Former Murdoch editors and journalists charged with phone hacking, police bribery or other wrongdoing include Cameron’s former spokesman, Andy Coulson, and ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, a friend of the prime minister.
Still, Leveson acquitted senior politicians of wrongdoing.
Cameron was holding talks today with leaders of the other main parties in an attempt to thrash out some agreement on press regulation.
He faced a battle. His own deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the leader of his coalition partner the Liberal Democrats, differed from Cameron in backing the call for a new regulator established in law.
"We owe it to the victims of these scandals, who have already waited too long for us to do the right thing," Clegg said.