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Leveson says UK press needs watchdog, fines for breaches

Inquiry finds newspapers have often ignored their own code of conduct and calls for fines to be imposed for future breaches.

LONDON // Britain needs a tough independent body with powers to impose heavy fines on newspapers, Lord Justice Leveson recommended yesterday in a long-awaited report that calls for the most sweeping changes in press regulation in the country's publishing history.

Introducing his four-volume report stretching to nearly 2,000 pages, Lord Leveson - a senior judge - hailed the role of an "irreverent, unruly and opinionated" free press.

But he said newspapers' own code of conduct had too often been ignored as press malpractices "wreaked havoc" on individual lives.

His report's capacity to split politicians and public was amply demonstrated when the prime minister, David Cameron, and his deputy, Nick Clegg, failed to agree on the findings.

They pointedly chose to make separate statements to parliament, reflecting Mr Clegg's much greater enthusiasm for the recommendations.

Mr Cameron told MPs the press should be given a short period of time to implement the recommendations without legislation.

He said he had "'serious concerns and misgivings" about proposals for a statutory underpinning of new regulation procedures. "We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press."

Mr Clegg has earlier said everyone wanted both a "strong, independent, raucous press that can hold people in positions of power to account" and protection for "ordinary people, the vulnerable, the innocent when the press overstep the mark".

The dispute, though downplayed in government circles, prompted speculation about the potential long-term damage to an already uneasy coalition government.

It was also clear from early reactions to the report that its conclusions were far closer to what critics of the British press has sought than what the industry wished to hear.

In his key conclusion, Lord Leveson found that the present system of regulation, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), had failed. Introducing his report, he compared the work of the PCC, with heavy industry involvement, to editors "marking their own homework". The same phrase has been used repeatedly by a prominent campaigner for press reform, the actor Hugh Grant.

Lord Leveson denied that the body he was recommending could be described as statutory regulation. He said his proposed self-regulation, though underpinned by legislation, would be free of government or industry influence.

The body would have the power to fine publishers up to £1 million (Dh5.89 million) for breaches of a new code of conduct and to demand corrections or apologies to be published, but not to prevent publication of articles.

Lord Leveson insisted that legislation framing the new body should place "an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press".

But to satisfy public concerns about press excesses, it should have sufficient powers to carry out investigations when there was suspicion of serious or systemic breaches of the code.

He said it would be preferable if publishers signed up voluntarily to the new body. Those refusing, he recommends, should be policed by Britain's broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom.

Lord Leveson recalled that his inquiry's origin was public revulsion at revelations that the mobile phone of a murdered teenager had been hacked.

The parents of Milly Dowler, who was 13 when she was killed in 2002, were among several victims of newspaper abuses present in a London conference centre to hear the judge's statement.

Concern about press conduct has led to separate police investigations into phonehacking and corrupt payments to police and other public officials.

Former editors, police officers and civil servants are among dozens of individuals who have been arrested. Many now face trial and, if convicted, imprisonment.

Rupert Murdoch's News International group, whose titles include the mass-circulation daily newspaper The Sun and previously included the News of the World, has paid out huge sums in compensation to public and private figures subjected to phone-hacking by staff members of News International.

The News of the World was closed down last year as part of Mr Murdoch's response to the scandal.

Lord Leveson said he was not convinced that hacking was confined to a few individuals involved in some "covert, secret activity, known to nobody, save one or two practitioners of the dark arts".

There had been "a willingness to deploy covert surveillance, blagging and deception in circumstances where it is extremely difficult to see any public-interest justification".

He accepted that newspapers' role was to entertain as well as to inform. However, sections of the press had decided that celebrities were "fair game, public property with little, if any entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity".

"There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected," he said.

To the question of who guards the guardians, Lord Leveson concluded, the answer "should not be no one".

He also found that while relations between press and politicians were generally healthy, some contact involving members of all political parties had not been in the public interest. In future, he said, politicians should be required to keep a log of contacts with the media.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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