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Leveson Report Rips British Tabloids, Calls for Greater Oversight of the Press

But Prime Minister is Wary of Infringing on Press Freedom

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Leveson Report Rips British Tabloids, Calls for Greater Oversight of the Press

News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch

Photo by James Knowler/Getty Images

The Leveson inquiry report into the U.K.'s s phone-hacking scandal represents a damning critique of Britain's tabloid newspaper industry, and calls for unprecedented oversight of the press.

The inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, was launched in 2011 following reports that some tabloids - chief among them Rupert Murdoch's News of the World - had hacked into the private cellphones of possibly thousands of people, including one owned by schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who went missing and was later found murdered.

Some key findings of the report, which was released Nov. 29:

• There was a willingness in the press to use covert surveillance, misrepresentation and deception, resulting in "a culture of reckless and outrageous journalism." Stories were pursued "to the point of vice, where it has become (or, at the very least, verges on) harassment."

• Such methods were employed regardless of whether there was any public interest in doing so. Those targeted by reporters included actors, soccer players, writers, pop stars and even members of the royal family. Such celebs were considered "fair game, public property with little if any entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity."

• There was a recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories, "almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected."

• In the case of Dowler, Leveson wrote: "The revelation of that story rightly shocked the public conscience in a way that other stories of phone hacking may not have, but it also gave momentum to growing calls for light to be shed on an unethical and unlawful practice of which there were literally thousand of victims."

• There was for several decades a too-cozy relationship between British politicians and the press that was not in the public interest. The police, in turn, failed to adequately investigate phone-hacking allegations.

• The Press Complaints Commission, the existing press oversight body, has failed, the report said. It should be replaced by an independent, self-regulatory committee whose chairman and board members must be appointed in a transparent way, without influence from industry or government.

• Leveson said he was not proposing statutory regulation of the press, nor did he want to give the government the power to to prevent newspapers from publishing what they wanted. But he did say the new oversight body should be backed by a parliamentary statute, and have broad investigative powers and the authority to levy fines of up to $1.6 million.

"The ball moves back into the politicians' court," Leveson said. "They must now decide who guards the guardians."

But it seems clear that won't happen quickly. Many MPs welcomed the inquiry's findings but Prime Minister David Cameron said he had "serious concerns and misgivings" about Leveson's call for an oversight body backed by legislation.

"It would mean for the first time we have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land," Cameron said. "We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, on the other hand, took the extraordinary step of disagreeing with Cameron and siding with Levenson's recommendation. It seems clear a political battle is brewing in Parliament.

The scandal exploded in July 2011 when it was revealed that the phones of Dowler, relatives of slain British soldiers, and victims of the London terrorist bombings had been hacked. Public outrage prompted News Corp. CEO Murdoch to close the 168-year-old News of the World, the tabloid at the center of the scandal, just days later.

The resulting investigations eventually led to the arrests of several former News of the World editors, including Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis. Murdoch and his son, James, were called to give evidence before the Leveson inquiry.

The scandal also provoked broader discussions over the role of the press in Britain and whether reporters should consider themselves professionals who, among other things, adhere to a strict code of ethics.

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