Britain's Cameron warns press regulation must change

28th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned Wednesday that the current newspaper regulation system is unacceptable, as he received a key judicial report into the Rupert Murdoch phone-hacking scandal.

Cameron's comments came a day before senior judge Brian Leveson is due to publish his findings from a year-long inquiry into press ethics, which are widely expected to include recommendations for statutory regulation.

But Britain's oldest political magazine said it would refuse to sign up to any government-enforced regulator system, and other newspapers warned that introducing new laws were a threat to 300 years of press freedom.

Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry in July 2011 after the discovery of widespread hacking of voicemails and other illegal practices at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which the Australian-born tycoon then closed down.

The prime minister told parliament on Wednesday he hoped the process would lead to "an independent regulatory system" for the press and called for a cross-party consensus, but did not say if he supported new laws.

"The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating -- the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change," Cameron said.

The British press is currently self-regulated by the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors, which critics say is toothless.

Cameron will give a statement to parliament on Thursday following the publication of Leveson's report and there will be a parliamentary debate next week on its recommendations, probably followed by a non-binding vote.

The prime minister's Downing Street office received "half a dozen" advance copies of Leveson's 1,000-page report so that Cameron can prepare his statement, a spokesman told AFP.

He is not obliged to follow the report's recommendations but they are likely to present him with a dilemma amid splits in his Conservative party over the need for statutory regulation.

More than 80 lawmakers from the three major parties said in a letter published Wednesday that any introduction of statutory regulation would be the biggest blow to media freedom in Britain for 300 years.

"As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning," said the letter published in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph newspapers.

The letter pointed out that state licensing of newspapers was abolished in 1695.

London 2012 Olympics chief Sebastian Coe was among the senior Conservatives who signed the letter while it also includes several former Labour ministers.

But 42 MPs from the centre-right Conservatives -- who are the senior partners in a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats -- have previously written a letter calling for strong new press laws.

British newspapers are thought to be ready to accept a tougher independent regulator that could hand out big fines but insist that signing up should be voluntary.

The Spectator, a right-leaning political magazine which says it is the oldest continuously published weekly in the English language, said that laws aimed at tackling tabloid abuses could have a "chilling effect" on the rest of the press.

"If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government," it said in a leader article.

But Hollywood actor Hugh Grant, who has spoken out on behalf of victims of phone hacking, called for new laws.

"What people are campaigning for is an end to newspapers being able to regulate themselves, marking their own homework," he told the BBC.

The Leveson inquiry heard eight months of testimony from hacking victims, politicians and media figures.

British police have launched three linked investigations into misdeeds by newspapers, while Cameron's former spokesman Andy Coulson and ex-Murdoch aide Rebekah Brooks have both been charged with phone hacking and bribery.

© 2012 AFP

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