U.K.'s Press Ethics Report Recommends New Independent Regulator

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Rupert and James Murdoch.

The report of the inquiry into media standards in the wake of the News Corp. phone hacking case stayed away from sharp criticism of Rupert Murdoch and other big industry names.

LONDON - The final report of the Leveson Inquiry into U.K. media ethics and standards on Thursday criticized that there have been "far too many" cases, in which the British press has ignored its public responsibilities, and suggested the creation of a new independent regulator for newspaper companies in Britain. It would have legal underpinnings, but would not be a government regulator, the report highlighted.

The 46-page executive summary of the Leveson Report, ordered in the wake of the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, concluded that there wasn't proof that phone hacking took place at any titles other than the News of the World tabloid, which the conglomerate shuttered last year. The summary also stayed away from sharp criticism of News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, son and deputy COO James Murdoch and many other big-name media executives.

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Among media personalities mentioned in the report are CNN host Piers Morgan, a former U.K. tabloid editor. Leveson concluded that Morgan was aware that phone hacking was going on in the industry, but there was no evidence that he was involved in ordering it himself. The report did, however, say that Morgan jokes about hacking showed that, like many others in the industry, he was "sufficiently unembarrassed" about the issue.

"The evidence placed before the inquiry has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that there have been far too many occasions over the last decade and more when these [press] responsibilities, on which the public so heavily rely, have simply been ignored," the report's executive summary says. "That is not to conclude that the British press is somehow so devoid of merit that press freedom, hard won 300 years ago, should be jeopardized or that the press should be delivered into the arms of the state."

But Leveson added that this doesn't mean that "the price of press freedom should be paid by those who suffer, unfairly and egregiously, at the hands of the press and have no sufficient mechanism for obtaining redress."

His recommendation is for "a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation," with a new regulator that "must represent the interests of the public as well as the press."

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Newspaper and other media moguls alike have been waiting for the final report to assess how it may change things for them. And celebrities were waiting for the report's conclusions and ideas as the British government will have to look at them and decide whether to put them into effect. Curbs on press excesses could mean a more cautious approach by newspapers here to celebrity coverage.

Observers were waiting to find out if Leveson would blame mistakes and failures on inefficient oversight systems and safeguards or blame specific people, such as the Murdochs. Rupert and James Murdoch in their Leveson Inquiry appearances mostly blamed shortcomings at News International on subordinates and their legal team.

A committee of the British parliament that investigated the phone hacking scandal had said earlier this year that the mogul wasn’t a “fit person“ to lead a major international media company.

Judge Brian Leveson was set to present his findings at 1:30pm London time after a probe into the newspaper industry that took more than a year. In the wake of the News Corp. phone hacking scandal in the summer of 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the review of media standards and picked Leveson to oversee it as chairman.

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Discussing celebrity coverage, Leveson wrote: "There is amble evidence that parts of the press have taken the view that actors, footballers, writers, pop stars - anyone in whom the public might have an interest - are fair game, public property with little, if any, entitlement any sort of private life or respect for dignity, whether or not there is a true public interest in knowing how they spend their lives."

Added the report: "Their families, including their children are pursued and important personal moments are destroyed. Where there is genuine public interest in what they are doing, that is one thing; too often, there is not."The Leveson report proposed what experts have called “co-regulation” or self-regulation with statutory underpinning. It suggested that parliament incentivize newspaper industry oversight for the biggest publishers, while leaving details of the regulatory body and its actions to the industry.

The Press Complaints Commission, the former U.K. newspaper watchdog, was industry-established and -run, but was considered ineffective. It has been in shutdown mode in the wake of the hacking scandal.

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Leveson's proposals became public following weeks of intense public debate about what role, if any, the state should play in newspaper regulation. In an open letter ahead of the report, more than 80 British personalities, including Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, had urged politicians that to avoid press excesses, the U.K. needs “not new laws, but a profound restructuring of the self-regulatory system.”

Thursday's newspapers here all featured big stories looking ahead at the Leveson report. "Change...not Chains," titled Murdoch's The Sun in a last-minute push for a re-jigged self-regulation system. It wrote: "The future of Britain's free press hangs in the balance today - as crime victims, military heroes and political heavyweights plead in The Sun for Parliament not to shackle newspapers."

Leveson's inquiry, which included interviews with a range of top media industry executives and celebrities, looked at the relationship of newspapers with politicians, other officials and the public. The evidence phase included appearances or written submissions from such people as actor Hugh Grant, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, singer Charlotte Church, Cameron, CNN host Piers Morgan, former prime minister Tony Blair, News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, son and deputy COO James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of News Corp.'s U.K. newspaper arm News International, and Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World.

Leveson said that his report is the seventh commissioned by a British government in 70 years that focuses on press concerns.

Trying to bridge the gap between supporters and opponents of government regulation, he said legislation should be passed that would "underpin" the self-regulatory system, but that wouldn't establish the body itself, which would be left to the industry. "The legislation would not give any rights to parliament, to the government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever."

He emphasized: "This is not, and cannot be characterized as, statutory regulation of the press." Instead, it would be independent self-regulation "with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independent and effectiveness are met" so that publishers benefit from joining the new system.

The new regulatory body itself should be made up of a chair and board that should not include any current editors politicians. A majority of members should be independent of the press, Leveson argues.

The new regulator should set standards, "through a code and in relation to governance and compliance," the Leveson report says. The creation of the code should happen with input from the public.

It should also hear individual complaints against members when standards breaches are alleged and order "appropriate redress" and provide "a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil law claims based upon its members' publications."

Said Leveson about the new system: "I am confident [it] would protect both the freedom of the press and freedom of speech along with the rights and interests of individuals; it should therefore command public confidence." The chair and other members of the new regulatory body should be appointed via an independent panel, which could include a current editor, but with a "substantial majority" of people independent of the press and the government.

Instead of forcing publishers to join the new regulator, Leveson suggested a system of financial incentives related to the costs of litigation. For example, punitive damages could be assigned to a publisher that is not part of the regulatory system as it has shown "willful disregard of standards," he said. The new regulatory system "should not be considered sufficiently effective if it does not cover all significant news publishers," he said.

Leveson suggested that the government could consider using U.K. media/broadcast regulator Ofcom as a "backstop" regulator for those newspaper firms that don't join the proposed new systems. But he didn't make any formal recommendations on that possibility.

Outside the conference center where the report was unveiled, media, including NBC News, lined up earlier in the morning. Protesters with signs saying "End the Murdoch Mafia" positioned themselves outside. One group even had made a cardboard Rupert Murdoch head.

In the U.S., politicians have also been looking at whether News Corp. may have run afoul of laws. They will closely look at the final report.

Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate's commerce committee, earlier this year sent a letter to Leveson to ask if any of his evidence suggested "unethical" or "illegal business practices."

"While I understand that the main goal of this report is to make policy recommendations, the core of the inquiry remains the illegal and unethical practices of newspapers owned by the News Corporation," media reports quoted him as saying overnight. "I remain deeply concerned that these companies may have violated U.S. laws and injured U.S. citizens. I hope that Lord [Justice] Leveson’s new report and other ongoing investigations will continue to clear the air and hold the companies accountable for their deplorable conduct.”

Hugh Grant, a phone hacking victim, arrived at London's Queen Elizabeth II center, where Leveson made a statement without answering questions, earlier in the day.

Earlier this month, British media industry folks concentrated their attention on the crisis at the BBC, but the focus has shifted back to tabloids and the Leveson findings in recent days.

The Leveson Inquiry was triggered after allegations that in 2002, the voice mail of a missing 13-year-old girl had been hacked by someone working for the News of the World tabloid before she was found murdered.

Top politicians, led by Cameron, are expected to comment on the Leveson report later on Thursday. A parliamentary debate is expected for Monday.

Here is a look at other highlights from the report:

* Leveson assailed what he called a "significant and reckless disregard for accuracy." He argued that "misrepresentation and embellishment takes place to a degree far greater than could ever be thought of as legitimate or fair comment."

* At the News of the World, there was "a failure of systems of management and compliance," the report also says,

Addressing suggestions that bad behavior by the News of the World shouldn't affect other media, Leveson wrote that "the significant number of stories that fail to meet [key integrity and propriety] standards cannot be ignored, and I have no doubt that they do reflect a culture (or, perhaps more accurately, a sub-culture) within some parts of some titles."

In the case of phone hacking, for example, "no national title mounted a campaign about the slack security surrounding mobile phone messages," the report says.

* Addressing questions about the relationship between politics and the press, Leveson said the two have developed "too close a relationship…in a way in which has not been in the public interest."

* Former U.K. Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, who has been criticized for his handling of the regulatory review of News Corp.'s bid for full control of BSkyB, got several mentions in the executive summary. Addressing the question if he was too friendly towards News Corp. or even biased, Leveson said "there is no credible evidence of actual bias." But he questioned his appointment of an advisor who was in close contact with News Corp. during the bid review.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com
Twitter: @georgszalai