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Leveson urges new independent regulator for UK press

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By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN

LONDON (CNN) – The British press should be regulated by an independent group supported by law and with the power to fine, a judge recommended Thursday in a long-awaited report sparked by a phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.

Judge Brian Leveson said he was not recommending that Parliament set up a press regulator, but that the industry should create its own, which would be backed by legislation to make sure it meets certain standards of independence and effectiveness.

“The legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press; it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body,” he told reporters in London.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who asked the judge to prepare the report, told Parliament after its release that he agreed with Leveson’s recommendations for a new strong, independent regulator for the press.

He said the onus was now on the press to implement the report’s recommendations, “and implement them radically.”

But Cameron said he was not convinced legislation was needed to underpin the new system — and that he had serious concerns about taking that approach.

At the same time, the prime minister said the “status quo is not an option” and that the victims of press abuses had “suffered in a way that we can barely begin to imagine.”

His remarks will be followed by a statement by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads the Liberal Democrats, which governs with Cameron’s Conservatives as a coalition.

In his report, Leveson said that he had no desire to jeopardize the freedom of the press, which he acknowledged plays a “vital” role in safeguarding the public interest, but that changes were needed to tackle abuses.

The British press has ignored its own code of conduct on “far too many occasions over the last decade,” causing “real hardship” and sometimes wreaking “havoc with the lives of innocent people,” Leveson said.

“This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them, truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behavior that, at times, can only be described as outrageous,” he said.

At the same time, no one proposed that the government or Parliament should be involved in regulating the press, Leveson said.

The judge said the relationship between the press and politicians is mostly “robust,” but sometimes the links can be “too close.”

He highlighted as a concern “relationships between policy makers and those in the media who stand to gain or lose from the policy being considered.”

This risks undermining public confidence in the press and politicians, he said.

Leveson described his inquiry, which heard from hundreds of witnesses during eight months of hearings, as “the most concentrated look at the press this country has ever seen.”

Those testifying included politicians — Cameron and former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown among them; police and media players such as News Corp.’s Murdoch; and victims of press abuses.

The inquiry was first announced by Cameron in July 2011 in response to public outrage over a newspaper phone-hacking scandal.

The trigger was the allegation that in 2002, the voice mail of a missing 13-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, had been hacked by an investigator working for the News of the World newspaper before she was found murdered. Compounding the anger was the claim (later dismissed by police) that messages were deleted by him from the schoolgirl’s full voice mail box, giving her parents false hope that she was alive.

The furor forced the closure of the 168-year-old News of the World, owned by News International, a branch of Murdoch’s News Corp. media empire.

It also prompted a new appetite among Britain’s public and political establishments to see the sleazy underbelly of (often tabloid) reporting exposed and steps taken to clean up the media’s act.

Leveson’s report was the subject of much speculation before its release. Freedom of expression groups warned of a potential impacts on freedom of speech, while campaigners for greater controls said regulation was essential.

The actions of staffers at News Corp. and its UK subsidiary News International have come under close scrutiny in the course of the inquiry.

Among those to testify were Murdoch protégé Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International and onetime editor of the Sun and News of the World, and Andy Coulson, who also edited the News of the World. He went on to become Cameron’s director of communications before resigning from that post early last year.

Both appeared in court Thursday morning to face charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, in connection with alleged illegal payments to public officials. They and three other accused were released on bail and ordered to appear in court again next week.

The scandal has also raised the specter of possible legal action against News Corp. staffers in the United States under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which outlaws the bribery of foreign officials by U.S. firms.

However, analyst Porter Bibb in New York said the release of the Leveson report was “a nonevent” from the point of view of U.S. investors and would have no real impact on News Corp. stocks.

The corporation is doing well and Murdoch has come back “stronger than ever” following the pressure he was under to cede control of parts of his media empire early this year, he said.

CNN’s Jonathan Wald and Dan Rivers contributed to this report.