Tougher press rules on anvil in Britain

The existing Press Complaints Commission would be replaced with a new body.

After months of hearings, a long-awaited report on the behaviour of British newspapers embroiled in the phone-hacking scandal has recommended a new system of press regulation that would be backed by parliamentary statute, setting up what threatened to develop into an acrimonious political debate about curbs on Britain’s 300-year-old tradition of broad press freedom.

Weighing in at 1,987 pages in four hefty volumes, the report reprised nine months of testimony by 337 witnesses at an inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson.

The judge was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to lead a review of newspaper ethics and practices at the height of the scandal that erupted around News of the World, a now-shuttered Sunday tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper subsidiary.

Exploring an issue with deep resonance in British politics, the report examined the nuances of the relationship between Murdoch, as the country’s most powerful media baron, and a generation of British politicians. It specifically rejected the suggestion that Cameron and Murdoch struck a ‘deal’ trading election support for Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010 or policies favouring the Murdoch empire in Britain.

Independant new body

It also advocated a new form of independent self-regulation for the newspaper industry that would be much tougher than the widely discredited system that has been in place for the past 60 years.

Under the new plan, embraced by Cameron and other party leaders, the existing Press Complaints Commission would be replaced with a new body that would be independent of the newspapers and the government, and have wide investigative powers and the authority to levy fines of up to $1.6 million.

But the political leaders vehemently split over the Leveson recommendation that the new system be backed by a parliamentary statute. Supporters of the provision, in the opposition Labour Party and the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, but also numerous among Conservatives, saw statutory underpinning as giving the new body real teeth.

Opponents, including Cameron, described legislating any part of the new system as ‘crossing the rubicon’ on the way to state-sanctioned press controls, and reversing a tradition dating to the abandonment of newspaper licensing in 1695.

“I’m proud of the fact that we have managed to last for hundreds of years in this country without statutory regulation,” Cameron said, “and if we can continue with that, we should.” That was countered by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, and, more awkwardly for Cameron, by Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who is deputy prime minister in the coalition government led by the prime minister.

Advocates for press freedom in Britain and abroad expressed alarm at the Leveson proposals. “A media regulatory body anchored by statute cannot be described as voluntary,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Moreover, adopting statutory regulation would undermine press freedom in the UK and give legitimacy to governments around the world that routinely silence journalists through such controls.”

For Cameron, the looming political split posed a potentially serious risk because an unofficial head count suggested that a statute-backed system might command a clear majority in the House of Commons.

Seeking to avoid an up or down vote, Cameron and other party leaders went straight into a meeting in quest of a compromise, possibly one that would hold the threat of legislative action over the newspapers if they failed to adopt a sufficiently robust system of their own.

The report offered few new insights into the tabloid scandal, which set off public revulsion with the disclosure in July 2011 that News of the World had intercepted voice mail messages left by anguished relatives on the cellphone of a missing teenager who was later found murdered.

The bid for Sky television ultimately collapsed amid the scandal that enveloped the Murdoch papers, and Cameron and Murdoch, at the inquiry, strongly denied there had been any trade-off. In the report, Leveson said flatly that he had found no evidence of backroom deals between Murdoch and any British prime minister.

But he added a qualification that went to the heart of the power Murdoch has amassed through his newspaper and television holdings, which command an imposing share of the British market, and, commentators here have said, nurtured a deep-rooted reflex, in successive governments and in the police, to curry the favour of Murdoch and turn a blind eye to his editors’ excesses.

“Sometimes the greatest power is exercised without having to ask,” the report said. “Just as Murdoch’s editors knew the basic ground rules, so did the politicians. The language of trades and deals is far too crude in this context. In their discussions with him, politicians knew that the prize was personal and political support in his mass-circulation newspapers.”

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