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Independent regulation of the British press underpinned by legislation has been recommended by Lord Justice Leveson today.

The peer, who has carried out a 16-month-long inquiry into press ethics following phone-hacking and other allegations aimed at the now-defunct Rupert Murdoch owned Sunday tabloid News of the World, concluded in his 2,000-page report that a more stringent form of regulation backed up by a legal airbag is needed. However he stopped well short of recommending direct government control.

Many might view his proposals as the thin end of the wedge, however.

Prime Minister David Cameron will be telling Parliament what he thinks about the report at 3pm today. Deputy PM Nick Clegg will follow with a separate statement, which suggests there may be a split within the coalition on how to steer Leveson's recommendations through the Houses.

In an executive summary accompanying the report, the lord - who also called for the "abolition and replacement" of the existing Press Complaints Commission - said that his proposed legislation would achieve three things:

First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press.

Second, it would provide an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom.

Third, by recognising the new body, it would validate its standards code and the arbitral system sufficient to justify the benefits in law that would flow to those who subscribed; these could relate to data protection and the approach of the court to various issues concerning acceptable practice, in addition to costs consequences if appropriate alternative dispute resolution is available.

Leveson insisted, however, that his recommendations did not amount to "statutory regulation of the press."

He said:

"What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership."

But he warned that some publishers might "fail to rise to this challenge" by declining to "establish a system of independent self-regulation that meets the criteria."

Leveson also threatened that consequences would follow if the press pack in Blighty refused to listen to his recommendations. He continued:

I have ... set out in the report the options that I believe would be open to the government to pursue, and some views on the potential way forward, in that regrettable event: these include requiring Ofcom to act as a backstop regulator for those not prepared to join such a scheme.

But the peer added he doesn't want to force press barons down such a route. Leveson appeared to want to flush out the detractors from his recommendations by adding:

It would be a great pity if last-ditch resistance to the case for a measure of genuine independence in oversight of standards or behaviour by the press, or the intransigence of a few resulted in the imposition of a system which everyone in the industry has said they do not want, and which, in all probability, very few others would actually want to see in place.

I would very much prefer that the focus of all concerned should be on attempting to deliver the effective self regulation that I have set out – organised by the industry to a standard that the public can accept. In my judgment, this provides the least burdensome method of ensuring some form of adequate independent regulatory oversight of press standards for the future.

Possibly for the first time in our history, it provides real incentives for the press to organise and thus deliver genuine effective independent regulation in the public interest.

Elsewhere in his summing up, Leveson spoke of how the phenomenon of publishing online had damaged the national press. With competition increasing, he argued that standards had dropped. He said:

[T]he internet with its many sources of news and information (usually free), blogs, and social media such as Twitter have all contributed to a dramatic change to the cost base and economic model on which newspapers are based. In turn, this has increased the pressure for exclusive stories.

Most titles produce editions online, accessible on a PC, tablet or smartphone, many of which are free to the user. Although the larger selling newspapers remain profitable (even in some cases extremely profitable), there is a very real challenge because of the competitive pressure, the blurring of old distinctions (such as between video content and print) and the need to find ways of making money from publishing on the internet. In this context, I am required to address issues of cross-media ownership and the necessary regulatory regime that will support plurality in the media in this country.

By way of example, he went on to use the method of phone hacking being openly spoken and joked about by newspaper editors. In his view it was an open secret that mocked the general public.

I emphasise that this does not make whoever mentioned the topic necessarily guilty of anything. However, at the very least, it demonstrates that the attitude of these editors was not one of embarrassment that this type of intrusion was going on; it was not such as to make them examine their title’s attitude to compliance in this area. No national title mounted a campaign about the slack security surrounding mobile phone messages.

Leveson concluded on that basis alone that "phone hacking in itself, even if it were only in one title, would justify a reconsideration of the corporate governance surrounding the way in which newspapers operate and the regulatory regime that is required."

On the topic of Murdoch's Sunday redtop, which was killed off by News International in July 2011, the peer said:

"It was said that the News of the World had 'lost its way' in relation to phone hacking; its casual attitude to privacy and the lip service it paid to consent demonstrated a far more general loss of direction."

This way for the full report and the executive summary from the Leveson Inquiry. ®

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