Dan Kitwood, Pool, Associated Press
LONDON — Britain needs a new independent media regulator to eliminate a subculture of unethical behavior that infected segments of the country's press, a senior judge said Thursday at the end of a yearlong inquiry into newspaper wrongdoing.
Lord Justice Brian Leveson said a new regulatory body should be established in law to prevent more people being hurt by "press behavior that, at times, can only be described as outrageous." But Prime Minister David Cameron balked at that idea, warning that passing a new law to set up the body would mean "crossing the Rubicon" toward state regulation of the press.
Leveson issued his 2,000-page report at the end of a media ethics inquiry that was triggered by revelations of tabloid phone hacking and expanded to engulf senior figures in politics, the police and Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
His proposals will likely be welcomed by victims of press intrusion and some politicians, who want to see the country's rambunctious press reined in. But some editors and lawmakers fear any new body could curtail freedom of the press.
Cameron welcomed Leveson's proposal for a new regulator with powers to settle disputes, order corrections and fine offenders.
But he said that 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. "In this House which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line."
Leveson insisted in his report 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 "what is needed is a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation."
But Leveson said it was "essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system."
"The ball moves back into the politicians' court: they must now decide who guards the guardians," he said.
He said the new body should be composed of members of the public including former journalists and academics — but no serving editors or politicians. It should have the power to demand prominent corrections in newspapers and to levy fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.6 million).
Critics of the tabloid press generally welcomed the report.
Former Formula One boss Max Mosley, who sued Murdoch's News Corp. for invasion of privacy over claims he had taken art in a Nazi-themed orgy, said Leveson's report went in the right direction, although "I would have liked to see more."
Campaign group Hacked Off said Leveson's proposals "are reasonable and proportionate and we call on all parties to get together to implement them as soon as possible."
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 lawsuits from dozens more, from celebrities, politicians, athletes and crime victims whose voicemails were hacked in the paper's quest for scoops.
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