Inquiry demands new UK press law

Leveson report recommends a regulatory body is set up in the wake of a hacking scandal that rocked Britain's newspaper industry

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 4:29am

A major inquiry called yesterday for new 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 tabloid, 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 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 set up the Leveson Inquiry in July 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. "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," he said.

Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was due to take the unusual step of making a separate statement after Cameron's, underscoring 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 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.

The British press 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 (HK$12.4 million) 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, said the inquiry's proposals were "reasonable and proportionate".

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

Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Murdoch's British news paper wing News International, and Cameron's former spokesman Andy Coulson both appeared in court yesterday on bribery charges.


Timeline of Britain's phone-hacking scandal as Leveson Inquiry reports:

July 4, 2011
A lawyer for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler says police told him that her voicemail messages were hacked in 2002, possibly by aNews of the World investigator. The disclosure comes after the government backs News Corporation's plans to buy out pay-television group BSkyB. Six days later, News Corp closes the tabloid.

July 8
Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor who also served as David Cameron's chief media adviser, is arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications

July 13
News Corp withdraws its bid for BSkyB. Two days later, Rebekah Brooks, another former News of the World editor, resigns as chief executive of News International.

July 19
Rupert Murdoch tells a parliamentary committee that he was "shocked, appalled and ashamed" when he heard about the Dowler case. His son James is also questioned.

Nov. 14
A public inquiry chaired by Lord Leveson begins its investigations into media ethics.

March 13
James Murdoch says he was let down by senior staff. He later severs all ties with News International and resigns as chairman of BSkyB.

May 10
Coulson tells the Leveson inquiry that Cameron's Conservative Party had asked few questions about his past. Brooks appears on May 11 and details her friendships with the cream of British politics.

May 15
Brooks is charged with interfering with a police inquiry into a phone-hacking scandal.

Nov. 20
Coulson and Brooks are charged with conspiring to pay officials for information.