LONDON – In a highly anticipated and lengthy report, a senior judge Thursday recommended that a new, independent regulatory authority be set up to monitor Britain’s raucous press and to crack down on media abuses such as phone hacking and other unethical newsgathering practices.
Justice Brian Leveson said such a regulator was necessary because the press had at times “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people” through its intrusions on privacy and relentless pursuit of scoops.
The new regulatory body should be backed by law, but it should not include any politicians, in order to avoid government control of the press, nor any editors, in order to maintain full independence, Leveson said.
The regulator would replace a previous press complaints commission that is widely recognized in Britain to have been a failure, particularly with regard to the phone-hacking scandal. Evidence has emerged that hundreds of high-profile figures may have had their cellphones tapped by the now-defunct News of the World tabloid.
The scandal gave rise to a months-long, government-commissioned investigation into media culture and ethics by Leveson, who heard testimony from more than 300 witnesses.
The recommendations in his 2,000-page report are likely to please some hacking victims and satisfy demands of some lawmakers who say that Britain’s media, in particular its sensation-seeking and gossip-hungry tabloids, have been allowed to run amok.
But the news organizations themselves have expressed alarm over any form of regulation that has its roots in law and that, they fear, could be the first step toward government censorship. Although they recognize the need for oversight, many news outlets have pushed for a better system of self-regulation with no legal underpinning.
Leveson was eager to emphasize his respect for a free press and denied that his recommendations represented any threat to it.
“The press operating freely and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of our democracy. As a result, it holds a privileged and powerful place in our society,” he told reporters. “But this power and influence carries with it responsibilities to the public interest in whose name it exercises these privileges. Unfortunately, as the evidence has shown beyond doubt, on too many occasions those responsibilities … have simply been ignored.”
The report has been eagerly awaited for months. As its release date neared, politicians and high-profile individuals dug in on either side, calling for laws to regulate the media or warning against them as an unacceptable infringement on a free press.
“As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control,” said a letter signed by 86 lawmakers. “The solution is not new laws but a profound restructuring of the self-regulatory system.”
A recent poll, however, found a majority of Britons in favor of some kind of regulation of the media backed by the force of the law.
The witnesses who appeared before Leveson included some of Britain’s best-known public figures, such as Prime Minister David Cameron. Actor Hugh Grant and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling denounced media invasions of their privacy. Media baron Rupert Murdoch and other newspaper proprietors spoke about newsgathering practices.
The inquiry was launched last year after the hacking scandal exploded in the public consciousness with the revelation that the News of the World had tapped the voicemail messages of a missing 13-year-old girl, whose body was later found dumped in the woods by her killer.
Like a fast-spreading fire, the scandal quickly engulfed key pillars of British public life, putting the heat not just on tabloid newspapers but also the politicians who cozied up to them and the police who offered scoops in hopes of flattering coverage. Within days, the head of Scotland Yard resigned, as did one of Murdoch’s closest confidants, and the 168-year-old News of the World was shut down.
Three separate police investigations – into phone hacking, computer hacking and bribery of public officials – were spawned by the affair. Dozens of people, most of them journalists at Murdoch-owned publications, have been arrested.
Only a few hours before Leveson’s report was released, the former head of Murdoch’s newspapers in Britain and a onetime senior aide to Cameron appeared in court on charges of paying public officials for information.
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