U.K. Press Inquiry Urges New Regulator and Big Fines for Journalistic Faults

Voluntary to Join -- but Bigger Civil Liability for Those Who Don't

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Britain should set up a new independent regulator for the media with the ability to levy big fines when reporters and editors go wrong, a U.K. judge said following a press-ethics inquiry triggered by News Corp.'s phone-hacking scandal.

Lord Justice Brian Leveson
Lord Justice Brian Leveson

The independent watchdog should have the power to issue fines of as much as 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) for serious journalistic infractions, and news organizations that decline to join the system should face higher civil damages if they're sued by victims, Justice Brian Leveson said in a long-awaited report published in London today.

"What is needed is a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation," Mr. Leveson said in his summary of the 1,987-page report's findings. "The ball is now in the court of politicians." He said that neither "the victims or the public would accept the outcome if the industry did not grasp this opportunity."

Though the judge didn't propose forcing news organizations to join the regulator, a step publishers and some lawmakers said this week would violate press freedoms, he did say legislation would be needed to underpin the watchdog. Mr. Leveson steered clear of most specific criticisms of politicians and media executives, including News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who testified about the failures at his now-defunct News of the World tabloid, whose hacking of a murdered schoolgirl's mobile phone prompted the inquiry.

The judge said that even as the report was being printed this week, he was given a fresh submission by newspaper groups saying "most of the industry" was now ready to support a new regulatory model proposed by Guy Black, a director of the Telegraph Media Group, and David Hunt, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the existing organization owned by the newspaper industry.

"Although this model is an improvement on the PCC, in my view, it does not come close to delivering," Mr. Leveson said in a television statement. "It is still the industry marking its own homework."

He criticized media groups that are opposed to regulation underpinned by law for spreading "so much misleading speculation and misinformation" about his recommendations before they were published.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who testified at the inquiry and had an advance copy of the report yesterday, will comment on Mr. Leveson's findings later today.

Milly Dowler, whose voicemail was hacked by the News of the World after she went missing
Milly Dowler, whose voicemail was hacked by the News of the World after she went missing

The report was issued after Mr. Leveson held 102 days of hearings about press behavior and the media's ties to police and politicians, which critics of the press said created a conflict of interest and the potential for corruption.

The press "ignored" its responsibilities, Mr. Leveson said. "This has damaged the public interest, caused real hardship and, also on occasion, wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people."

Mr. Leveson proposed Parliament pass a law recognizing the new regulator and its proposed interactions with the court system, as well as enshrining "for the first time" the government's responsibility to protect the freedom of the press. The new body should also have a board free of editors or politicians, he said.

"Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterized as, statutory regulation of the press," Mr. Leveson said.

"It is essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes," he said, acknowledging that this would be seen by some as "the most controversial part of my recommendations."

Mr. Leveson said an industry-supported regulator would be able to look into public complaints using retired judges and senior lawyers with specialist media knowledge. Newspapers that declined to join the regulator may set themselves up for higher "exemplary" damages in civil cases brought by victims.

News Corp. has spent more than $315 million on civil settlements, legal fees and costs of closing the News of the World. More than 80 people have been arrested for intercepting voice mail and bribing public employees, including reporters at its daily Sun newspaper, and a civil trial of claims by more than 150 hacking victims is scheduled for June.

While Mr. Leveson heard days of testimony about the media's interaction with police following revelations of bribery by journalists at the Sun, he said there's no evidence of widespread police corruption. He didn't comment in detail on the phone-hacking scandal, citing concern about hampering the ongoing investigation and criminal cases.

Daisy Dunlop, spokeswoman for News Corp.'s News International U.K. publishing unit, said the company had no immediate comment on the report.

More than 1,000 submissions were made to the inquiry from interested parties, while its website had more than 1.8 million hits and 652,000 unique visitors from more than 200 countries, according to the report.

"There will not be another opportunity for this kind of reform in a very long time, and it would be a terrible waste if it became lost in a deluge of knee-jerk reactions and partisan sound bites," Andrew Terry, a media lawyer at Eversheds in London, said in an e-mail.

You can read the full report here and the executive summary here.

~Bloomberg News~

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