RECOMMENDATIONS: Lord Justice Brian Leveson poses with an executive summary of his report following an inquiry into media practices in central London. Picture: REUTERS
RECOMMENDATIONS: Lord Justice Brian Leveson poses with an executive summary of his report following an inquiry into media practices in central London. Picture: REUTERS

LONDON — BRITAIN needs a new independent media regulator to eliminate a subculture of unethical behaviour that has infected segments of the country’s press, a senior judge said on Thursday at the end of a year-long probe 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 behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous".

He said "what is needed is a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation".

Judge 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 are likely to 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 legislators fear any new body could curtail freedom of the press.

Judge 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 Press Complaints Commission.

But Judge Leveson said it was "essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system". 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 £1m.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry after revelations of illegal eavesdropping by Mr Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid sparked a criminal investigation and a wave of public revulsion.

The furore erupted last year when it was revealed the News of the World had eavesdropped on mobile phone voicemails of slain schoolgirl Milly Dowler while police were searching for her.

Mr Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper in July last year. His UK newspaper company, News International, has paid millions in damages to dozens of hacking victims, and faces dozens more lawsuits, from celebrities, politicians, athletes and crime victims whose voicemails were hacked in the quest for scoops.

Judge Leveson heard evidence from hundreds of journalists, politicians, lawyers and victims of press intrusion during months of hearings. They provided a dramatic, sometimes comic and often poignant window on the workings of the media.

Witnesses ranged from celebrities such as Harry Potter author JK Rowling and Hugh Grant — who both complained of highly intrusive treatment — to the parents of Dowler, who described how learning that their daughter’s voicemail had been accessed had given them false hope that she was alive.

Judge Leveson said that the continuing criminal investigation constrained him from accusing other newspapers of illegal behaviour, but argued there was a subculture of unethical behaviour "within some parts of some titles". While many editors have denied knowing about phone hacking, he said it "was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody, save one or two practitioners of the ‘dark arts’."

More broadly, he said newspapers had been guilty of "recklessness in prioritising sensational stories almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause".

"In each case, the impact has been real and, in some cases, devastating," the judge said.

The hacking scandal has rocked Britain’s press, political and police establishments, who were revealed to enjoy an often cozy relationship in which drinks, dinners and sometimes money were traded for influence and information. Judge Leveson said over the past three decades, political parties "have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest".

He acquitted senior politicians of wrongdoing, but recommended that political parties publish statements "setting out, for the public, an explanation of the approach they propose to take as a matter of party policy in conducting relationships with the press".

Parliament will have to approve the legal changes the report recommends, and Mr Cameron is under intense pressure from both sides. He is also tainted by his own ties to prominent figures in the scandal.

Former Murdoch editors and journalists who were charged with phone hacking, police bribery or other wrongdoing include Mr Cameron’s former spokesman, Andy Coulson, and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, a friend of the prime minister. Mr Coulson and Ms Brooks appeared in court on Thursday on charges of paying public officials for information.

Mr Cameron and other senior politicians insist that they will not constrain Britain’s long tradition of free speech.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Thursday: "Everybody wants two things: firstly, a strong, independent, raucous press who can hold people in positions of power to account, and secondly, to protect ordinary people, the vulnerable, the innocent when the press overstep the mark. That’s the balance that we are trying to strike and I am sure we will."

Sapa-AP