British inquiry urges new laws for 'outrageous' press

29th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

A British inquiry called Thursday for a tougher watchdog underpinned by new laws to curb the country's press in a damning verdict that sets up Prime Minister David Cameron for a 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 tabloid, said there should be an independent self-regulatory body, underpinned by legislation.

But Cameron voiced concerns about any statutory change, putting him on a collision course with his junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, 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 ignored the codes that it had itself set up.

He said that 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 commissioned the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011 in the wake of a report alleging that the News of the World hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler as well as the revelation that dozens of public figures had had their phones hacked.

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, taking the unusual step of making a separate statement after Cameron's, said that he backed Leveson's call for new legislation.

"Changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator isn't just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good," he said.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband also said Leveson's proposals, which are now likely to go to a vote in the House of Commons, or lower chamber of parliament, should be implemented.

"No more last chance saloons," he said, referring to repeated warnings over the last two decades that the British press had had enough warnings.

Parliament will debate Leveson's recommendations on 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 £1 million ($1.6 million, 1.23 million euros) 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".

Hacked Off, a victims' campaign group featuring Hollywood star Hugh Grant, said they were disappointed by Cameron's opposition.

Mark Lewis, lawyer for the Dowler family and other phone-hacking victims, said: "There wasn't much point in a judicial inquiry unless it's implemented."

Leveson witness Kate McCann, whose daughter Madeleine went missing on holiday in Portugal in 2007, welcomed the report and urged Cameron to follow its advice.

"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," she said.

But Tom Mockridge, chief executive of Murdoch's newspaper wing News International, welcomed Cameron's "rejection" of the proposal to introduce statutory regulation.

Over eight months of hearings, the Leveson Inquiry heard from victims of press intrusion including actor Hugh Grant and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, politicians, journalists, police and newspaper executives.

Police have arrested dozens of people under three linked probes into alleged crimes by newspapers.

Brooks, who was Mockridge's predecessor at News International, and Cameron's former spokesman Andy Coulson both appeared in court earlier Thursday on bribery charges.

© 2012 AFP

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