LONDON (AP) — Britain's unruly newspapers should be regulated by an independent body dominated by non-journalists with the power to levy steep fines, a judge said Thursday in a report that pleased victims of tabloid intrusion but left editors worrying about creeping state control of the country's fiercely independent press.
Prime Minister David Cameron echoed concerns about government interference, expressing misgivings about a key recommendation of the report — that the new regulator be enshrined in law. He called on the much criticized press to show it could control itself by implementing the judge's proposals quickly — and without political involvement.
"I'm proud of the fact that we've managed to survive hundreds of years without state regulation," he said.
Lord Justice Brian Leveson issued his 2,000-page report at the end of a media ethics inquiry triggered by a scandal over tabloid phone hacking that expanded to engulf senior figures in politics, the police and Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
His key recommendation was to create a new print media regulator, which he said should be established in law to prevent more people being hurt by "outrageous" press behavior that had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained."
Cameron, under intense pressure from both sides of an issue that has divided his own Conservative Party, welcomed Leveson's proposal for a new regulator and said "the status quo is not an option."
But he said that asking legislators to enshrine it in law meant "crossing the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land."
"I believe that we should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press," Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons. "In this House which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line."
Leveson insisted that politicians and the government should play no role in regulating the press, which should be done by a new body with much stronger powers than the current Press Complaints Commission.
But the judge said it was "essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system."
He said the new body should be composed of members of the public including former journalists and academics — but no more than one serving editor, and no politicians. It should have the power to rule on complaints, demand prominent corrections in newspapers and to levy fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.6 million), though it would have no power to prevent material being published.
Membership would be voluntary, but newspapers would be encouraged to join in part to stave off expensive lawsuits — the regulator would handle complaints that currently end up in court.
The proposal is similar to the system operating in Ireland, where a press council and ombudsman were set up in 2008 to make the print media more publicly accountable.
Critics of the tabloid press generally backed Leveson's findings.
"I welcome Lord Leveson's report and hope it will mark the start of a new era for our press in which it treats those in the news responsibly, with care and consideration," said Kate McCann, who was the subject of intense press interest after her 3-year-old daughter Madeleine disappeared during a holiday in Portugal in 2007.
Brian Cathcart of the group Hacked Off, which campaigns for victims of press intrusion, said Leveson had produced "a workable, proportionate and reasonable solution to the problems of press abuse."
He said Cameron's "failure to accept the full recommendations of the report is unfortunate and regrettable."
Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry after revelations of illegal eavesdropping by Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid sparked a criminal investigation and a wave of public revulsion.
The furor erupted in 2011 when it was revealed that the News of the World had eavesdropped on the mobile phone voicemails of slain schoolgirl Milly Dowler while police were searching for the 13-year-old.
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper in July 2011. His U.K. newspaper company, News International, has paid millions in damages to dozens of hacking victims, and faces dozens more lawsuits from celebrities, politicians, athletes and crime victims whose voicemails were hacked in the paper's quest for scoops.