Leveson calls for new British media watchdog

An inquiry into British newspapers has called for a new independent watchdog enshrined into law to regulate the press and prevent a repeat of the phone-hacking scandal that rocked Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

In handing down his report Lord Justice Brian Leveson was highly critical of sections of the press, describing its behaviour as "outrageous" and said it had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people".

The year-long inquiry grilled politicians, celebrities, and even Rupert Murdoch over claims journalists from the British arm of News Corp hacked the phone messages of thousands of people, including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and dead British soldiers.

Lord Justice Leveson said that misbehaviour by the British press had undermined its own arguments that it works in the public interest.

"There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist," he said.

He said that not only famous people but also ordinary members of the public had often tragic events "made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous." He criticised the relationship between the press and politicians in Britain, saying it had been too close.

But while recommending statutory regulation to underpin a new media watchdog, Lord Justice Leveson said it would in no way allow parliament to regulate the newspapers.

"It would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press," he said.

"The ball moves back into the politicians' court: they must now decide who guards the guardians." Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations threaten to divide prime minister David Cameron's coalition government.

Mr Cameron personally set up the inquiry and he will come under pressure to follow its recommendations.

Britain's public will expect tough action on the country's notoriously aggressive press, while he risks angering the industry and his own party if he imposes statutory regulation.

More than 80 MPs and members of the House of Lords opposing any statutory regulation of the press.

"As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning," the letter said.

It added: "No form of statutory regulation of the press would be possible without the imposition of state licensing - abolished in Britain in 1695." Parliament will debate the report's recommendations next Monday, probably followed by a non-binding vote.

The British press currently regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors which critics say is toothless.

'An aberration' Exposing the close ties between political leaders, police chiefs and press barons, the Leveson inquiry revealed the "dark arts" of journalists seeking ever more salacious stories in a bid to hold up dwindling circulation figures.

The scandal that started the inquiry - revelations that News of the World journalists had hacked the voice messages of Milly Dowler - forced Mr Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid.

Appearing before the inquiry this year Mr Murdoch said the paper "was an aberration and it's my fault".

But despite expressing regret for the phone hacking, he refused to take personal responsibility for it.

In a bid to prove how much has changed, he told the inquiry 300 million emails had been checked as part of an internal investigation, arrests had been made because of that, and his company now had new rules.

Mr Murdoch endured two days of grilling at the inquiry and was forced to deny playing puppet-master to Britain's top politicians.

The Leveson inquiry also heard from celebrities including Harry Potter author JK Rowling, singer Charlotte Church, Milly Dowler's parents and other Britons who told of how they had been harassed, bullied, and traumatised by the press.

Politicians, journalists and police all went before the inquiry and their testimony revealed embarrassing text messages from Mr Cameron to newspaper executive Rebekah Brooks, left a minister fighting for his career, and shone a light on the often cosy relationship between the press, police and politicians.

Police have launched three probes into alleged misdeeds by newspapers while Brooks, the former head of Murdoch's British newspaper wing News International, and Mr Cameron's former spokesman Andy Coulson have been charged with phone hacking and bribery.

Both Coulson and Brooks, who are former Murdoch editors, appeared in court on Thursday on bribery charges, just hours ahead of the report's publication.

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