, LONDON, Nov 29 – A judge called on Thursday for legislation to underpin a new regulator for Britain’s “outrageous” newspapers in a dramatic move that threatens to divide Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government.
Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who led an eight-month inquiry following the phone-hacking scandal that closed down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, also criticised politicians for getting “too close” to the press.
His eagerly awaited report called for legislation for a new independent self-regulatory body underpinned by law, saying 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,” Leveson said in a statement.
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.”
Cameron personally set up the Leveson Inquiry and will come under pressure to follow its recommendations. He is due to make a statement to parliament on the report’s conclusions at 1500 GMT.
But the report divided the coalition government before it was even unveiled, with Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg taking the unusual step of demanding to make a separate statement, at 1600 GMT.
“Everybody wants two things,” Clegg told reporters.
“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.”
Cameron told parliament on Wednesday that the current system of self-regulation by newspapers was unacceptable but he declined to say whether he supported new laws.
The British press currently regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors which critics say is toothless.
The prime minister set up the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011 in the wake of revelations that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler as well as dozens of public figures.
Murdoch was forced to shut down the 168-year-old newspaper over the scandal.
Over eight months of hearings, the Leveson Inquiry heard from victims of press intrusion including actors and celebrities, as well as politicians, journalists, police and newspaper executives.
Their testimony revealed embarrassing text messages from 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.
Parliament will debate its recommendations next Monday, probably followed by a non-binding vote.
Police have launched three probes into alleged misdeeds by newspapers while Brooks, the former head of Murdoch’s British newspaper wing News International, and 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 Thursday on bribery charges, just hours ahead of the report’s publication.
Lawmakers are divided on how the British press should be regulated in future.
More than 80 members of the three major parties signed a letter published in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph on Wednesday opposing any form of statutory regulation, but 42 Conservative MPs have called for strong new press laws.
British newspapers, already fighting for commercial survival as circulation figures plummet, are thought to be ready to accept a tougher independent regulator that could hand out big fines but reject any statutory underpinning.